Friday, February 20, 2015

Sufjan Stevens - The 50 States

In 2003, Sufjan Stevens released Michigan, an album meant to initiate his ambitious Fifty States Project, where Sufjan was to release an album based on each of the states. In 2005, he followed up with the sprawling Illinoise, perhaps his greatest album to date.

After these two albums, he seemed to drop the project for more obtainable goals and concepts, leaving a slew of songs planned for other states to never see official release, including the infamous track The 50 States Song, which for years only existed as a live recording.

Combining out takes from both Michigan and Illinoise, as well as a handful of compositions produced during this era, a grand new album has been compiled as a catch-all, entitled The 50 States.  In my opinion, this is Sufjan's best era, so this is hands-down a recommendation for anyone not familiar with Sufjan Stevens.  You won't believe some of these are outtakes for Christ's sake!

Oh and it's a confusing release:  two mini-LPs

Sufjan Stevens - The 50 States

Side A:
1.  The 50 States Song
2.  No Man's Land
3.  The Lord God Bird
4.  The Midnight Clear
Side B:
5.  Presidents And Magistrates
6.  Niagara Falls
7.  Lakes of Canada
8.  The Mistress Witch From Mcclure (Or, the Mind that Knows Itself)
Side C:
9.  Adlai Stevenson
10.  The Avalanche
11.  Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair
12.  Maple River
Side D
13.  The Star Spangled Banner
14.  Majesty, Snowbird

Many years ago I indulged in the rarities of Sufjan Stevens via various places on the web.  At that point I had been heavily into his epic Illinoise, spanning over 20 tracks and exploding with musical excellence.  This album, along with Greetings From Michigan, were the first albums of the proposed but later dropped concept albums of The 50 States Project.  It was to be one album per State, an overwhelming endeavor.

I originally compiled a second disc for Illinoise, using many of the songs from the album The Avalanche, which is a catalog of the outtakes from Illinoise.  At this time the only version of The 50 States I could find was a rough live recording, so I just took a few out of place tracks from other b-sides and made a part two that satisfied me.

Upon further gathering, I discovered a studio version of not only The 50 States Song, but of The Star Spangled Banner.  Immediately I began compiling, this time taking tracks from both The Avalanche and the outtakes from Michigan.  A few other tracks recorded during this lovely period are also included.

No Man's Land (2), The Mistress Witch From Mcclure (8), Adlai Stevenson (9), The Avalanche (10), Springfield (11) are from The Avalanche (AKA Illinoise outtakes).  Presidents and Magistrates (5) and Niagra Falls (6) are from the LP exclusive Greetings From Michigan second album of outtakes. 

The Midnight Clear (4) is from Sufjan Steven's Christmas EP recorded just after Illinoise.  The Lakes of Canada (7), Maple River (12) and Majesty, Snowbird (14) are live recordings.

Theme was very important when compiling this album, as there are at least a dozen other songs I could have selected from.  The opening track, The 50 States Song, and the penultimate track, The Star Spangled Banner, lay the scope fully.  This is an album about the fifty states and everything in between. 

Presidents and Magistrates and No Man's Land were obvious choices, and The Lord God Bird (3), from a radio session, is one of Steven's best-known bootlegs.  It was a necessary addition, fitting the theme perfectly.  Many songs of the two albums officially released had to do with personal stories and trials. 

The Midnight Clear, though recorded for a Christmas album, has very little imagery other than winter, and when you think of Christmas, you think of America.  I included very particular songs from The Avalanche, songs that focused on personal conflict as well as upbeat songs that lyrically connected to the American theme.  Springfield was a choice made merely because of the name, though the song is really excellent.

The set ends with Majesty, Snowbird, perhaps one of Sufjan Steven's greatest recordings.  I pray for the day a studio version is released. 

Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite artists, and in my opinion, one of the best artists around today.  It seems that for the time being, like so many other artists, he has entered the realm of electronic music.  Though excellent on its own merits (really, The Age of Adz is great), there will always be a soft spot in my heart for his folky, more acoustic outings.

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