If Sufjan Stevens weren't attracting such attention, you might say, "Well, if only he were from another generation..." What generation that would be isn't quite clear, but for the 20- to 30-somethings of today, he is an anomaly. His project -- to create an album for each of the 50 states -- is more Walt Whitman than Modest Mouse.
A multi-instrumentalist who tends to keep a banjo closest, Stevens has a keen ear for the soaring harmonies of folk, pop and gospel. As a songwriter, he sculpts setting and character like a novelist.
The first two installments in the 50 states project, which recognize his home state of Michigan and now Illinois, take their cues from the myths, rituals, facts, characters and the innumerable variables that develop inside arbitrary geographical boundaries.
The overall tone of Illinois is that of a marching band circling city hall, led by someone who has read piles of books and has giant sensitivity. Woodwinds, violins and choral blasts shimmer around trips to dots on the map and visits with poet Carl Sandburg and serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr.
The Columbian Exposition, Chicago's World's Fair of 1893, is given special thematic attention as a precursor to our modern American life: from the Pledge of Allegiance to hamburgers, Disneyland to corporate power. But Illinois doesn't sputter out as a thesis; each song renders odd and complex characters.
Stevens is raising the bar of indie rock to ridiculous heights of creativity and ambition. If you are so inclined, and become enamored by his music as well, you might find yourself hoping that he tackles all the eccentricity and grandeur of your home state next.
-- Elliott Johnston
Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver
Friday, July 29, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15; visit nipp.com.