Like the song's subject matter, the music itself is just a little bit…well, creepy.
This is a song about a serial killer, yet Sufjan Stevens' gentle, soothing voice is accompanied by a similarly calm guitar and piano melody. The song sounds precious, almost beautiful. There are points in the song in which the subject matter of the lyrics and the music seem to clash violently. How could a song about such a psychotic individual be so calm and soothing?
But then again, paradoxically, the lyrics and the music seem to clash so much that they actually begin to work incredibly well together. It's almost haunting that a song about a serial killer can sound so beautiful—thereby taking the spooky factor up yet another notch. The overall effect is quite moving.
And as the song progresses, Sufjan's vocals begin to sound a little more raw and emotional. This is especially the case when the female backup vocals are added to the mix. The song concludes on an incredibly jarring note, as Sufjan advises us to look beneath his floorboards. After delivering this final line, the piano begins to slow its pace, and all you can hear is Stevens breathing slowly and intensely. It almost sounds as if writing a song about a serial killer has taken a toll on him.
Or maybe a tremendous weight has been lifted as he reveals a very deep, dark secret to the world.
Sufjan Stevens' calling card has got to be his "50 albums for 50 states project." He's publicized his intention to write an album about each of the 50 states in the United States.
While this may sound a bit gimmicky, the project has attracted a lot of buzz and attention. Most people probably think it sounds a little bit crazy, and indeed it is. Sufjan isn't exactly a youngster, so that's a lot of albums for the rest of his lifetime. Most likely, Sufjan's stated intentions are a little disingenuous. Either way, Sufjan's decision to write albums that look at the American experience through the lens of individual states has allowed him to create interesting music about subject matter that not many artists would tackle (this song being a prime example).
This has also allowed Sufjan to showcase his abilities as a storyteller. Stevens has explained that the 50 states plan has acted as "a means of inspiration, by allowing me to focus on a particular subject. It's sort of like creating obstructions, giving myself certain terms within which to work." (Source)
This approach has certainly been effective, allowing Sufjan to write songs that combine historical facts with other more personal elements.
Sufjan Stevens is one of the more interesting songwriters in the music industry today. He's meticulous in his approach to songwriting—not many other artists would read over poetry by Carl Sandberg, novels by Saul Bellow, or historical studies of western expansion while preparing for their next album. But that's just what Sufjan did while researching for Illinois.
Stevens takes a very literary approach to his songwriting, and this track certainly highlights this tendency. Stevens allows the story of John Wayne Gacy to slowly reveal itself over the course of the song. He sets up the life of John Wayne Gacy by first describing a couple relatively mundane details of his youth. This is a boy who had an unfortunate childhood, yes, but at this point, there's nothing that indicates what he will do later in his life.
But then when Sufjan gets to the line, "look underneath the house there, find the few living things rotting fast in their sleep, oh the dead," the story takes a twist. This man who was so beloved by his neighbors is also responsible for killing 27 people and hiding their decaying bodies underneath his house.
This is where Stevens allows his songwriting to get a bit more personal. He displays remorse for the boys and their families, exclaiming quite emotionally, "oh my god." As he takes a more personal look at the subject matter, Sufjan includes the listener in the act, making the song personal for all involved. He asks the disturbing, almost rattling question, "are you one of them?" Suddenly, Sufjan includes all of us in this story of John Wayne Gacy Jr.
Of course, nobody listening to this song could possibly be one of the boys that Gacy murdered, but Sufjan is using this device to make the listener just a little uncomfortable. Similarly disconcerting is the language that Stevens uses to describe the heinous actions that Gacy committed. For instance, Sufjan describes that Gacy "put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth." This sounds like a gentle, loving gesture, when we all know that he violently raped and suffocated his victims.
And in case these descriptions aren't spooky enough, Sufjan ends the song with the line "look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid."
Interestingly enough, not once does Sufjan mention the name John Wayne Gacy, Jr. If it weren't for the title of the song, the listener would have no clue that the song's subject matter is quite as dark as it is.