Illinoise – A Review of Sufjan Stevens’ CD

This is a great album. I have put off purchasing this album for over six months, but when it made number 4 on the top 50 albums list on my favorite radio station XPN-88.5 (which you can listen to on the web), I decided to make the investment. I am very glad I did. It is the best album I have purchased in the last year.

But one of the song’s titles gave me pause. It is entitled “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”.  I mean what can anyone say about such a horrible man – a heartless serial killer, who thankfully has gone on to face his Maker. I was leery of this song to say the least, but when I listened to it the first time, it brought tears to my eyes. It is a deceptively simple, yet hauntingly beautiful melody, and the words, well, you can read them yourself, They are printed below.

Just let me say that I was struck by how, early on, Stevens was able to humanize this monster, if only just a little. We see Gacy as a little boy, son of an alcoholic father, and we hear of his sense of humor and likeability. And then Stevens strikes just the right chords in portraying this man’s savagery. The lines “Oh the dead – 27 people – Even more, they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs – Oh my God – are you one of them?” are painful and poignant.

And as if that were not enough, the last lines are an indictment of all of us folks who are obviously much better people than Gacy could have ever been. He sings ” And in my best behavior I am really just like him. Look beneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid.”

Of course our secrets are not as terrible or horrific as Gacy’s, but that’s not the point, is it? All I’m saying is that it makes you think, and in this world, anything that makes you pause for a moment and contemplate the nature of humanity and our own natures is a good thing.

I highly recommend this album and especially this moving song. Allow me to quote one more reviewer, this one just about this particular song – Michael Metivier, who writes

On the flipside of this US Mint issued 50 States coin is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, which focuses on one particular Illinois native, in this case the notorious serial killer. The challenge of writing and pulling off this song is monumental for wholly different reasons than the rest of Illinois. How does one create an affecting piece of art centered on a cultural figure so extreme and reviled without being obvious/trite, or (even worse) sounding sympathetic to his actions by the plain fact of writing a song about him? The answer is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”: horrifying, tragic, and deeply sad without proselytizing. Who needs a song to tell them that murdering twenty-seven people is wrong? Instead, Stevens makes you feel it, describes the events in ways that strip away sensation and make you care, rather than numb, “Twenty-seven people, even more / They were boys / With their cars, summer jobs / Oh my God”. His voice is broken up on the phrase, going up into falsetto, as the weight of the situation overcomes both singer and song. The clincher is the final verse which begins, “And in my best behavior / I am really just like him”, echoing Mother Theresa when she was asked how and why she could devote her entire life’s work to the poor – because she was aware of her own potential for evil.

Sufjan Stevens – John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
(written by: Sufjan Stevens)From the album “Illinoise”

His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne’s t-shirts when the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation

Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things, rotting fast, in their sleep
Oh the dead
27 people
Even more, they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all

He’d kill ten thousand people
With a slight of his hand, running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid

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