Galvanized by tourist brochures, road atlas maps, and the spirit of Walt Whitman, Sufjan Stevens has become America's most beloved balladeer. His 2003 geographical tone poem to his home state of Michigan interrogated back woods and rivers, abandoned car factories and sand dunes, like a lushly orchestrated road trip from motor-city to the winter beaches of Lake Superior. Late last year, Sufjan's musical inquiry fell fast on the Land of Lincoln, stirred, perhaps, by sentimental recollections of his rebellious young adulthood on Clark Street in Chicago, Wrigleyville, the beachfront parks, the homeless kids with their pet puppies, the abandoned school house, where he slept on a desk. During the winter of 2004, Sufjan spent four months in isolation, recalling weekend trips to the Windy City, road trips to Bushnell and Peoria, reading books and biographies, memorizing the unfashionable poems of Carl Sandburg, laughing and shuddering through Saul Bellow's novels. He uncovered police blogs and books on tape. He solicited correspondence from old friends, Illinoisans once lost or estranged; he studied travel guides; he quizzed chat rooms; he made stuff up. All research, he decided, begins with your imagination and with your intuition, relying heavily on the convictions of the heart. In the course of a few weeks, Sufjan's own heart began to expand, leaving its fist-shaped mark on a series of songs that not so much pay homage to the Prairie State, but rack and rend its characters through potato farms, steel factories, street fairs, marching parades, convoluted rivers, and centuries past and present. The result was something bold, flashy, and ripe with advertisement, like the Goodyear blimp, but not without Sufjan's tender rendering of the imagination. When all was said and done, Sufjan felt irrevocable changes taking place within his body, like a second puberty. His shoulders broadened, his mind quickened, his heart began to beat with quiet, patient thumps in a rhythm as fluid and faithful as the Chicago River.
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