Sufjan Stevens explores Illinois in latest epic release

When Sufjan Stevens announced two years ago that he would release an album a year for 50 years and that each album would correspond to a state in our country, most didn’t think he could do it.

He kicked off the project in 2003 with the personal, complex and often incredibly moving “Michigan,” a 15-track love poem to his home state. In 2004, the project was de-railed when Stevens released “Seven Swans,” an album based not on a state, but on his emerging faith. With the upcoming July 5 release of “Illinois,” Stevens continues the state project, and with great success. Many still don’t think he’ll get to 50 states, but most hope he gives it a go.

“Illinois” is a Sufjan Stevens album on steroids. He trades in the light, acoustic, ballad-heavy feel of “Seven Swans” and the quirky sound of “Michigan” for an even quirkier, often orchestrated, fully realized album. Simply put, it’s stunning. “Illinois” is a heroic piece of work — 22 songs tracing the history and influence of the Prairie State. Stevens has said he read about and researched the state of Illinois for four months before he even started writing music. And the scholarship shows on the album, which features songs like “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!,” “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (named after the famed Chicago serial killer), “The Seer’s Tower” and the amazing “They Are Night Zombies! They Are Neighbors! They Have Come Back From The Dead! Ahhhhh!,” a tour of Illinois ghost towns.

This may sound lame — come on, an album based on Midwestern state’s history? — but Stevens pulls it off. “Illinois” features some of the cleanest, most melodic, lyrical pop music heard this year. His fully flushed arrangements feature horn sections and string quartets, not to mention banjos, keyboards and a large-sounding choir. “Seven Swans” focused on Stevens’ newfound faith, and in Illinois he renders so-called religious experiences in a universal light, making them human experiences before anything else. This is epic rock ‘n roll at its best.

You can purchase “Illinois” before its July 5 release at

— Nick Anderman