Art of the States

Q: How is indie darling Sufjan Stevens going to write 50 albums about all 50 states? A: One great record at a time.

I want Sufjan Stevens to heal our fractured nation. And when his latest record, Illinois, starts up, I'm convinced he can do it. His ensemble parades like a marching band, walloping the drums with gusto while the brass and woodwinds cry like we're about to win a war (or start one) and the choir sings like a group of the prettiest schoolgirl voices that ever graced a state fair. The procession sparks a vision of an America that unites and moves forward, believing that every day will be brighter than the one before. Everybody sounds excited -- except Stevens.

The bandleader's soft falsetto almost shies from the spotlight as the confidence of the backing singers yields to Stevens' neutral tone. And right after the super-triumphant "Come On Feel the Illinoise," he's suddenly alone, singing a ballad in which he likens himself to ... killer clown John Wayne Gacy Jr. What happened to the parade?

Sufjan -- if you chant his name at the concert, pronounce it "Soof-yan" -- is best known as a sensitive lyricist and musically omnivorous songwriter, who studied creative writing at the New School in New York and can play a couple of dozen instruments. His first two records, 2000's folk/ indie A Sun Came and 2001's experimental Enjoy Your Rabbit, made a minor splash, but in 2003 he released Michigan, a poignant album about his home state that combined soft ballads with intricate, layered arrangements, like a benefit concert for Flint thrown by Steve Reich and Simon & Garfunkel.

Sufjan Stevens: He's an American man, he's coming 
to your town, he wants to party down.
Denny Renshaw
Sufjan Stevens: He's an American man, he's coming to your town, he wants to party down.

Michiganmade Stevens an indie celebrity, and he followed it in 2004 with Seven Swans, a more stark singer/songwriter album with deeply religious lyrics. Stevens, a Protestant who neither hides nor trumpets his faith, became one of the few indie rock artists who could draw tears out of both Christian music fans and God-dissing hipsters. His ballad about Jesus, "To Be Alone With You," even wound up on an episode of The O.C., though not in the same context.

After MichiganStevens announced that he would continue to the other 49 states, starting with Illinois -- a quick hop away from his home state, but a place that he says he was not familiar with before he started the project. His choice "had a lot to do with my perception of Illinois generally as being robust and vigorous, and a great historical summary of American capitalism in some ways," he explains on the phone from his current home in Brooklyn.

Stevens researched the project by "scrounging around for details, and for the inside story." He read stacks of books, from Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow to academic studies of frontier life, and he solicited ideas and anecdotes from his friends in the state. "Everybody wanted me to write about their flower festival or their hog queen pageant," he says. "Or the 4-H Club."

Some of the name-checks are homey and local, and others are steeped in history. Stevens, however, doesn't try to be topical, which saves him from looking for a rhyme for Barack Obama, and which also gives the album the feel of earlier American lit, like that of John Dos Passos or Upton Sinclair (who set his own take on American capitalism, The Jungle, in the stockyards of Chicago). And unlike the more personal Michigan, much of Illinoisfeels larger than life -- with an ensemble cast that includes names like Abraham Lincoln and Superman. (In fact, after Stevens put the man of steel on the original cover for Illinois, he earned a cease-and-desist order from DC Comics that delayed the album's slated July 5 release date; while some copies made it into stores, Stevens' label expects to ship new, compliant copies by the first week of August.)

Aside from the choir and the string quartet, almost all of the music is overdubbed, and Stevens plays more than 20 instruments himself -- from glockenspiel and woodwinds to banjo and piano.

The final result is lush and orchestral: Instrumental segues and flourishes connect the songs; long titles -- like "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" -- name places as if to thumbtack the tunes to a map of the state. Yet in spite of its complexity, the record sounds spontaneous. "I usually write the parts out," Stevens says, "give them to the musician, who learns them immediately, and then we record it immediately. I don't leave any time for refinement, because I like the sense of surprise and unease in the first take."

That unease suits a project of such mammoth ambition. As he writes about an entire state, and ultimately the rest of America, Stevens still struggles to find a balance between the big picture and the individual stories; Illinoisworks from the top down -- in the myths, cities, and frontier past of the state -- but also from the bottom up, through the characters lost in the middle, like the woman dying of cancer in "Casimir Pulaski Day."

"I don't want to compromise the personal narrative for the overarching abstract generalizations about the United States as a whole," Stevens explains. "That's a real conflict in my vision. I think sometimes [Illinois] is a little unbalanced, where its affiliation with Illinois historically is compromised for the sake of the stories. And I think it's better to do that anyway. I'm more comfortable with storytelling than I am with history or politics."

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