Sufjan Stevens' ambitious intent to record one album for each of the 50 states is more of a charming framework for a series of albums than a realistic career goal, but the music that's come out of it so far has been undeniably good. After quietly releasing several albums on his label Asthmatic Kitty, Stevens found some mainstream success and near-universal critical praise with the first entry in his 50 states project, 2003's "Michigan." He followed up with a Christian-folk album, "Seven Swans," before returning to the state theme with last year's "Illinois," which was the best-reviewed album of 2005, according to Metacritic. His newest, "The Avalanche," released on Tuesday, is really a second Illinois album, made up of B-sides and outtakes from last year's release, including three versions of the song "Chicago." As for what he'll do next, Stevens won't say anything beyond, "I have an inkling that the next record won't be a state record." Salon spoke to him by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Why so many versions of "Chicago"? What is it particularly about that song that it needed so many incarnations?
It's just a pop song. You know how sometimes there'll be this great radio hit, and people will do covers of it, alternate versions -- Madonna has a dance remix, a club mix, a radio mix, an acoustic version -- I think it's a part of that whole tradition. But I just did it all myself because I knew no one else would probably do it.
The curse has been that this is a song that I never really valued that much. I think the story behind the song is important to me, and the emotional intention is there, but the song itself, technically, is just so primitive: It's just four chords, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, it's very repetitive. There's not much to it ... which is probably why it's so popular (laughs), because it appeals to the lowest common denominator.
You've expressed surprise in the past that so many people have responded to your 50 states project. Do you think that's possibly because we live in an era of singles and downloads, and in response there's a real hunger for meaningful full-length albums?
I think there's a reduction in quality and a lowering of standards overall in art and music. I'm not sure what the cause of this is -- maybe it's television, advertising, pop culture -- but there's definitely a decrease in literacy rates and languages and endangered species lists are going up. There's just, throughout the ages, a process of reduction and simplification. Maybe it's a decline of civilization, and as there's a proliferation of computers and technology, that the human mind is in decline.
Are you being serious?
Dude, I have no idea what I'm talking about. (Laughs.) So, maybe, my work is a reaction to that -- I want to go back to an era, the Renaissance era, when people had the freedom to develop big ideas.
"Seven Swans" dealt a lot more explicitly with the notion of God. Is that something you think you'll make music about again?
I think I'm always making music about God in some way, even if I'm singing about civilization or serial killers or famous presidents. If you're preoccupied with the American setting, I think you have to reconcile with the notion of God, because God has made himself a part of the history of this country -- it's a part of the culture of European immigration and it's also a part of Native American culture. And obviously, there's a preoccupation with the divinity in anything.
I think I tend to meditate on that a lot, especially when I'm writing songs about the natural world. I don't want to be too much of a hippie or a naturalist, but I tend to be inspired by the natural world and find in it idiosyncrasies and nuances that convince me that there is a divine order, that there's a design to this world.
There's a lot of bad religious music out there. For me it's imperative to honor the material you're singing about, and be respectful of sacred forms and sacred material. I feel an empathy for my subject, so if I'm singing about a soybean farmer and a runaway slave or a pedophile and a police shooting somewhere in Chicago, there's a carefulness and a responsibility that's required in managing that material in music. So if you're dealing with divine things, I think there's an even higher standard and respect that's required.
-- Scott Lamb