Hand it to Sufjan Stevens. Dude's nothing if not ambitious.
On his indie-folk albums, he tries to capture the giant, sprawling feel of Broadway musicals. He swears they'll be 50 of those such albums-one for every U.S. state. Or he'll die trying.
Touring to support his second state-album, Illinois, Stevens is proud to show audiences how far his sound has expanded since his first territorial treatise-2003's Greetings from Michigan.
"For Illinois, I wanted to create a fully realized, grand epic," Stevens explains. "I did all the research, writing and recording within a four-month period. I had clear themes, and better musicians, and a studio to work in.... The whole album is certainly less personal but generally more professional, more concrete and perhaps even more successful than anything I've done."
The song titles on Illinois are entirely too long-winded, bordering on pretentious. But that's the thing with Stevens. Everything he does is big.
"I decided to make an album that was based on the written word, on the chromatic gesturing of history books and chamber of commerce and photo albums," says the New York musician. "Illinois is based on raw data and research materials and books and periodicals and lots of time spent in libraries."
Stevens plays the following instruments on Illinois: acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, electric bass, drum kit, electric guitar, oboe, alto saxophone, flute, banjo, glockenspiel, accordion, vibraphone, recorder, sleigh bells, shakers, tambourine, triangle and an electric church organ.
"I tend to write most of the parts," he says. "I'm an egomaniac."
The difference between Stevens and other contemporaries who play with large, orchestral productions is Stevens' focus and uniformity that helps keep him from getting distracted by every flute and oboe solo.
Standout track "Chicago" evokes driving, blowing grass and the concrete and rebar spring in the Windy City. Gorgeous female backup vocals layered over trumpets, tambourines and rolling guitar riffs lift up Stevens' precious tenor as he sings "If I was crying/in the van with my friend/it was for freedom/from myself and from the land."
He says the project he is working on now is his "tan," suggesting one of the sunshine states may be next. When asked if he would really write an album about North and South Dakota, Stevens thought it possible.
"Unless I'm hit by a bus or fall off a horse, I don't see why not."
Sufjan Stevens plays with Bunky and Liz Janes at the Belly Up, 9 p.m. on July 15. $15. 858-481-8140.