On the fourth of July in 2005, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, a record that made him a household name, at least among a particular set of indie rock fans and music critics.
More than 10 years on, Asthmatic Kitty Records is releasing Illinois (Special 10th Anniversary Blue Marvel Edition). The titling is typical of Stevens' coy send-ups of consumer tropes (think: "Christmas Unicorn"), but the benefits, as always, are very serious. Today, he released an early demo of the song "Chicago," which would go on to become a centerpiece of the finished album; it's a rare glimpse of a great song still gestating.
The demo of "Chicago" begins with a flourish. Multi-tracked acoustics drive the song, tenser and less ecstatic than the finished version's arcing vibraphones and washing drums. The demo leaves the focus squarely on Stevens' vocal and his lyrics, and the instrumental builds steadily to a triumphant vocal melody that he excised by the time he released his finished version. The string section, which gives the finished song its holy sound, is the most notable instrumental absence on the demo.
"Chicago" happens to be one of a set of totemic songs from the early 2000s that each build on a similar, mythic chord progression. Like Coldplay's "Clocks" (note the similarity here) and Wilco's "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," "Chicago" taps into a sense of wonder and quest. All three ride their chord progression from start to finish with little variation. But let this demo be a reminder of what Stevens can do that almost no one else can: hold the world at arm's length, the better to fall in love with it again.
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