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Sufjan Stevens's Musical States of Mind

The 50 States Project: Sufjan Stevens aims to record a CD for each state. His latest is
The 50 States Project: Sufjan Stevens aims to record a CD for each state. His latest is "Illinois." (By Denny Renshaw)

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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005

AFTER 2003's "Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State" earned critical raves for literate and kaleidoscopic chamber-pop that explored the history and character of his home state, Sufjan Stevens announced a bold plan: to record an album for each and every one of the United States.

Equal parts whim, impulse, creative challenge and marketing ploy, such a project probably seemed like a good idea at the time . . . assuming the then-28-year-old Stevens lived a good, long life and never took vacations except, possibly, to as-yet-unwritten-about states.

"I may regret that," Stevens admitted recently from his Brooklyn home, without any obvious regret, "but it was probably necessary for me to acknowledge and put into words my intentions and my propositions. I think sometimes it's better for us to do that, even if it's detrimental.

"It's still kind of a mysterious thing to me, and I have no idea what it means," he says of what has been dubbed the 50 States Project. "We kind of make plans and goals by suspending our imagination, not really knowing what's going to happen next. I don't think it devalues the goal of the project or the nature of it. It is what it is."

What it is now is two albums down, thanks to the July release of "Illinois," an ode to the Prairie State that ranks No. 1 at Metacritic.com, a Web site that calculates an album's critical stature based on a wide sampling of reviews from mainstream and alternative media. Last year's champion was Brian Wilson's "Smile," and with its lush and intricate arrangements, quirky instrumentation, gorgeous melodies and conceptual ambition, "Illinois" has provoked comparisons to Wilson's "Pet Sounds" and "Smile," as well as to Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman and, for the nu-hipsters, Iron & Wine and the Arcade Fire.

Though he hired a string section and choir, Stevens did most of the playing on the album, overdubbing about 20 instruments, including oboe (the one instrument he has seriously trained on), piano, guitar, banjo, saxophone, accordion, glockenspiel, recorder and such percussion tools as tambourine and sleigh bells.

Where "Michigan" reflected a lifetime of homegrown memories and impressions -- Stevens was born in Detroit and grew up there and in Alanson, a small lumber town in northern Michigan -- "Illinois" resulted from extensive research, four months' worth before the first song was written. Raw materials included Saul Bellow's novels, Carl Sandburg's poems, biographies of historical figures, scholarly studies of small towns and frontier life, accounts of industrial development and old newspapers, as well as stories and anecdotes from friends who have lived there.

The 22-track, 74-minute album is replete with place names (Chicago, Decatur, Peoria, Highland Falls), populated by folks as disparate as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright and serial killer John Wayne Gacy. There's even room for Superman in "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," though his appearance on the album's cover created a small problem for Stevens's self-owned label, Asthmatic Kitty. Apparently, no one thought to get clearance from DC Comics to use a drawing of the famously trademarked figure, necessitating a cover change after the first run (and making that first run an instant collector's item).

Neither "Michigan" nor "Illinois" are likely to be included in chamber of commerce tote bags: They're not booster-style travelogues or "Come to . . . " seductions, instead reflecting what Stevens has called "the uneven textures of American life." One of "Illinois' " key tracks is the mini-symphony "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!," about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America and valorized American technology and commerce. It becomes a bittersweet rumination on the effects of industrialism in which Stevens sings, "All great intentions / Get covered with the imitations /Oh god of progress / Have you degraded or forgot us?"

According to Stevens, "industrialism taught us that anything can be mechanized and that there's a value of efficiency and economy in packaging to reach the widest possible audience and get the greatest yield from that. So many elements in our culture have been conditioned by that standard, and music is no different. The music industry has sort of systemized song and art in a real mechanized way, and while it's sad that the industry is in decline because of the Internet and downloading, it's exciting because it's empowering songwriters with a particular vision and voice, creating a whole new level of interest for unique songwriting."

Stevens is talking about such peers as Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons, whose debut album recently won Britain's Mercury Music Prize). They've been lumped into a movement, the avant-folk/acid-folk scene that Wire magazine last year dubbed "New Weird America." The one obvious commonality: They're from all over the map, geographically and musically.

Stevens -- his first name, Persian and pronounced "Soof-yahn," was bestowed by the leader of a spiritual sect his parents belonged to when he was born -- grew up on a classical path, studying oboe early and long, and teaching himself piano, on which he wrote what he calls "small concerti."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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