Published Jan 01, 2006"Sufjan Stevens is like the Reader's Digest of classical music for the modern pop generation," he laughs, when pressed about the role his classical music background played on his magnificent new record, Illinois. It is the second instalment in a potentially life-consuming task: to record an album for each of the 50 states. Musically, it picks up where Michigan left off two albums ago and takes a few immense strides forward. Thick with historical anecdote and writerly character sketches, Illinois presents a dizzying but accessible unfolding of complex musical structures; themes and variations from earlier works reappear in lush orchestration, and his fondness for atypical time signatures and changes erupt into full-on symphonic ambition. Here, Stevens emerges as a composer in his own right, with a work as poised and broad and expansive as the Midwest itself.
"I had a vision that was very grand and epic," he admits. "I wanted to write songs that were more embellished, more explicit in melody and tone." Unlike the previous instalment, which explored recollections of his home state of Michigan, Stevens had only a passing familiarity with Illinois. Already engaged in recording tracks for Oregon, Rhode Island and Arkansas (including a track commissioned by NPR), Stevens is the first to admit that his initial focus was aesthetic. "It had a lot more to do with the nature of the songs I was writing for Illinois than with my interest in the state or its geography."
In fact, Stevens' choice of subject allowed him to explore personal themes with greater depth. "Decatur" describes a fantastical journey with a lion and a kangaroo to witness a debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, but at its heart is a song of reconciliation with his stepmother. "This project is really less about the 50 states and America, and more about me and my imagination. Almost every song is in first person, and a lot are based on real life experiences."
On first listen, what strikes you is the breadth of his research Stevens threw himself into Illinois history with the fervour of a graduate student. "I was reading whatever I could get my hands on; it was trial and error and very desperate," he laughs. In addition to studying patterns of immigration, the state's troubled relationship with Native Americans, and the Civil War, he took the time to read works by Illinois' major literary figures.
"Carl Sandburg [is the] iconic Chicago writer, but he's really unfashionable and archaic now, so I also read Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March, which is the great American novel in my opinion. And then I was also reading essays about agriculture and architecture, and the World's Fair of 1893." Stevens was particularly taken by descriptions of this exhibition because it encapsulated a period of profound optimism in America, the myth of its perpetual progress and innovation. "It was this huge festival to promote to the world that America was a political, cultural and commercial world power that we had industrial markets and invention here. It came at this pivotal moment in global history."
While the World's Fair is remembered for innovations like the Ferris wheel and Wrigley's gum, it was at this same exhibition that American composer Charles Ives encountered ragtime and other early forms of jazz, and along with contemporaries like Aaron Copland and Europeans like Stravinsky, began to incorporate syncopated rhythms in classical compositions. A hundred or so years later, Stevens finds himself engaged in a project of bringing the sustained repeating motifs of classical music into indie rock.
Illinois is not only historically significant but deceptively large, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Mason-Dixon line. "Illinois is the centre of gravity for the Midwest, perhaps for the entire country," he says. "It is the agricultural centre of the U.S., it has the third largest city, it borders on the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. Early on I was always interested in big things, big concepts I loved programmatic symphonic pieces. In reading, I began to establish a sense of the character of the state, which was very resilient, industrious, ingenuous and confident."
Choosing to record the album at a Queens studio in addition to friends' apartments, Stevens transformed the delicate prettiness of Michigan and Seven Swans into his own robust confidence, achieving a sound between an exuberant Broadway musical and a crashing symphonic poem.
"The European composers would do these long symphonic litanies on regions and places and wars." With his 50 States series, Stevens is engaged in an act of poetic cartography, inscribing meaning via history and anecdote onto places largely unknown to him. And while programmatic music is a strong inspiration, he credits quitting oboe and pursuing a more academic program with freeing his ears to appreciate music more fully. "I wanted a broader experience in life. I think that in order to be a writer and a composer you kind of have to get out of the structures of musical academia.
"I don't expect to be doing historical surveys for every state. Some of the state records might not even mention any place names; you can be much more abstract or figurative about it. This record was just to prove that I could do the research. I don't know if it's successful, but I've made the attempt. I think from here on in I have a lot more freedom in how I can approach it."