"I kind of feel like a WWF wrestler in his spandex just waving his arms, making threats at opponents," laughs singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. "It's really all hyperbole of course, making propositions and claiming you can do these things, because at the time I said them I didn't really think anyone would take me seriously." We were talking on the phone last week, Stevens from his present home in Brooklyn, and he was explaining his current project of making an individual record for each of the 50 states. After releasing his most recent album, the majestic Greetings from Michigan, though, he only has 49 left to go--and whether or not he makes it all the way through, Stevens' musical expedition is off to an impressive start.

Michigan is a delicate-sounding record that travels along Stevens' hushed vocals--his shadowy delivery complementing the reflective lyrics, which oscillate between narrating lives of people living in his native state and offering more ambiguous and overtly spiritual observations. "Flint (for the Unemployed and Underpaid)" peeks through the curtains at a depressed, laid-off factory worker; "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Restore! Rebuild! Reconsider!)" describes a conflict of the industrial revolution with complex, Stereolab-style instrumentation layered over the odd time signatures of bustling factories with their machinery running in disunity. While Stevens' voice is soft, his music is still flush with emotion, and served well by his multi-instrumental handiwork; he moves from banjo to woodwinds, brass, keyboards, and vibraphones. The individual instruments are given such spacious arrangements they either swell like subdued symphonies or are left naked so the bulk of the sentiment rests on the tone of a single melody.

Stevens--who plays Neumo's Wednesday, July 28th--says he created this songwriting conceit because of an interest in "the idea of the American voice, the American person, and the character of the American," which has increased his high sensitivity to detail even in casual conversation. "If I hear anyone name-dropping or making regional references to states, or strange anecdotes, stories, or myths that come from different cities, I'm always storing that in the recesses of my mind," he says. "And I think there's a lot to learn from people telling stories about their lives from particular regions. That's really the practical crux of the project--observing, assessing, and evoking regional stories."

When asked where his geographic vision is taking him next, the one-time New School writing teacher answers Illinois. "That state represents the backbone of Midwest America," he explains. "Chicago is the city of broad shoulders, and you get the sense that Illinois is just a very tough, working-class kind of state. There's a rigorousness inherent in the towns that I'm interested in."

jennifer@thestranger.com

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