Even in the wide world of indie rock, Sufjan Stevens' idiosyncratic approach to subject matter and promiscuity with style is an odd fit. He followed up his folkish debut A Sun Came with Enjoy Your Rabbit, an electronic song cycle based on the Chinese zodiac. With the concept album Michigan he launched The 50 States, a geographically themed project where each state gets its own collection of songs. Stevens then detoured with Seven Swans, a whispery post-folk album about faith and redemption that drew comparisons to Iron and Wine, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith.
Now Stevens has released his second state-themed album, Illinois. It's a lush, evocative 74-minute, 21-song epic about the Land of Lincoln. The chamber folk, soaring choruses, and celebratory sprawl encompass small-town life, UFOs, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, presidents, and parades. Illinois is bloated, beautiful, conflicted, sad, and huge--a perfect American tribute.
"Last year I toured a lot in Europe. To them, Michigan was very exotic with its trailer parks, industrial cities in decline, and pink-flamingo lawn ornaments," Stevens explains. He was awed by people's curiosity about his home state. "When I was in Israel a journalist was asking me about Michigan, and he was talking about its rich history, which I thought was very incredible. There I was in the Holy Land, the beginning of civilization, and he's interested in the mysteries of Michigan." Stevens also found that while touring in Europe with such an American album, people wanted him "to be accountable to a lot of things, to communicate bigger things. I think it's a lot to ask of a songwriter. People project a political means on the music."
Illinois and Michigan aren't political, but they are steeped in history and regional mythologies. For Stevens these various strands have been entangled as long as he can remember. "There was a hyper obsession with culture, geography, state pride," he says. "I think that between book reports and history classes and learning state songs and Detroit Tigers songs, the seed was planted for 50 States."
Without direct experience with the Prairie State, Stevens's approach to Illinois was based on research and reading, creating a very different portrait--an outsider falling in love with a place and its history. He spoke with native friends, read Saul Bellow, biographies of Lincoln, the poems of Carl Sandburg, and the history books of small towns.
Stevens studied fiction at the New School in New York and finds that its influence plays a big role in his music. "Some people are very disciplined as far as outlining and structuring, but I tend to do a lot of free writing and the editing process is where the songs come together. I have principal characters with autonomous thoughts and there is a central conflict/tension."
With two down and 48 more to go, Stevens has begun to think of bequeathing some of the states to other musicians. "I want to franchise them out as long as I get 10 percent," he jokes. "Maybe Wilco could do Oklahoma."