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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I Can't Believe It's Not Sufjan Stevens: Local musicians finish the 50 States project

Illustration for article titled I Cant Believe Its Not Sufjan Stevens: Local musicians finish the 50 States project
Photo: Hayley Madden (Getty Images)

Once upon a time, Sufjan Stevens fans in Nebraska, Idaho, and South Dakota eagerly awaited the moment their favorite banjo-plucking Christian would write an album about the history and landmarks of their fair state, just as he did with 2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois. Unfortunately, Stevens’ proclamation that he planned to write an LP for every state in the union turned out to be a stunt, with the singer calling it a “promotional gimmick” in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. A great piece in The Ringer last year illustrated how, more than a decade on, fans are still feeling the sting of a promise that, no matter how outlandish, remains tragically unfulfilled.

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Enter L.A.-based writer, comedian, and online prankster Joey Clift, who’s spent the last month doing what Stevens wouldn’t, albeit in an abstract fashion. [Full disclosure: Clift is an A.V. Club contributor.] After a show he was writing on was shut down in light of the pandemic, he got the idea to crowdsource his own 50 States project from musicians throughout the country. This week, he dropped the first 26 albums. Yes, full albums. This is a lot of music.

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It’s an idea Clift’s had for years. “I’m not a huge Sufjan fan, but I’ve always thought the gall of him committing to, and then immediately abandoning his project was really funny,” he says in a statement sent to The A.V. Club, “and about five years ago, I came up with the idea to just get a bunch of friends together and finish his 50 States Project in a weekend or some other extremely short span of time to dunk on him and give the internet the catharsis it’d wanted for almost a decade.”

“All of my comedy and artist friends are now unemployed,” he continues. “Theaters are closed so there aren’t any live shows. All of these creative people are stuck inside with nothing to do so now was the perfect time to pull the trigger.”

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Clift says he received nearly 200 emails within a few hours of posting a call for submissions in mid-March, and that he’s spent “anywhere from 4 to 7 hours per day” since then “organizing songs and states on a spreadsheet, approving songs and putting together set lists.” He adds, “[I]n this crazy quarantine, it’s honestly given me a lot of stability while I wait for the entertainment industry to start up again. A lot of folks, when they send me their songs, e-mail me a sincere thank you for giving them something to do instead of focusing on the news and on top of that, I get the joy of knowing I’m maybe annoying a moderately popular folk musician.”

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Unsurprisingly, many of the songs—though not all—sonically evoke Stevens, with acoustic guitars, pianos, and ukuleles underscoring lyrics that unspool regional lore and forgotten historical figures. New Jersey’s “The Great Rancocas Flood of 2004,” for example, sets a local calamity against a stirring chorus, while one track on Texas summons the sprawling song titles of Stevens’ early work with “Houston! Mattress Mack May Save Us Money Today, But Who Will Save Us From Ourselves?” Comedian James Adomian even brings his famed Jesse Ventura impression to Minnesota.

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Clift tells us his original intent “was just to hastily make a bunch of songs,” and that he’s pleasantly surprised with how many genuinely good tunes surfaced. We agree: “State Of Kings” is a funny, layered folk track about Maine author Stephen King, and New Jersey’s lo-fi “In which I recently learned Robert Durst and I have used the same laundromat” belies its amusing title with a morbid, affecting approach in the vein of Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

“It’s all over the place in terms of genre, quality and tone (some songs are jokes, others are pretty serious),” Clift tells us in a Twitter DM, “and that’s kind of what’s cool about it.”

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He predicts he’ll have the 24 remaining albums—yes, he’s doing Michigan and Illinois again, as well as EPs for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico—finished by mid-May.

Listen to the available albums on the project’s Soundcloud page, and read Clift’s full statement about it below.

Sufjan Stevens is a popular pop / folk musician who, in the mid 2000s, proclaimed that he was going to release an album for all 50 States and called it his “50s States Project.” This got a ton of press when he announced it and he got even more press after he gave up after 2 albums, calling the whole thing “a joke.”

Sufjan’s fans were pretty upset and are honestly, 10 years later, still pretty upset about this because they’d wanted him to write an album about their state. There was even an in depth and heavily shared article on “The Ringer” about it last year.

I’m not a huge Sufjan fan, but I’ve always thought the gall of him committing to, and then immediately abandoning his project was really funny and about five years ago, I came up with the idea to just get a bunch of friends together and finish his 50 States Project in a weekend or some other extremely short span of time to dunk on him and give the internet the catharsis it’d wanted for almost a decade. I’d even pitched the idea to a few comedy websites I’d worked at and the general consensus was that the idea was funny and should be done, but it always got bogged down in the sheer logistics of like, “even to haphazardly slap together 50 albums or 400 to 500 tracks worth of music would take a lot of work and a lot of people.”

So the idea sat, written on a dusty notecard on my desk that I’d look at every few months and try to think of how I’d even begin to pull this thing off. As recently as December, I was thinking about pitching it to a few places as a podcast. Finally, last month a show I was writing on got shut down due to the whole global pandemic we’re all in and while driving home from my last day on the job, it hit me. I could crowdsource it! All of my comedy and artist friends are now unemployed. Theaters are closed so there aren’t any live shows. All of these creative people are stuck inside with nothing to do so now was the perfect time to pull the trigger.

So, last month I set up an e-mail account and tweeted that I was looking for songs to finish Sufjan Stevens 50 States Project and within a few hours I’d already had almost 200 e-mails from people from all over the world who wanted to contribute a song and we were at the races. A good mix of talented musicians, established comedians (James Adomian provided a few tracks for our Minnesota album), artists and creative folks who just wanted something to do. The whole process has been a lot of work. I spend anywhere from 4 to 7 hours per day replying to e-mails, organizing songs and states on a spreadsheet, approving songs and putting together set lists, but in this crazy quarantine, it’s honestly given me a lot of stability while I wait for the entertainment industry to start up again. A lot of folks, when they send me their songs, e-mail me a sincere thank you for giving them something to do instead of focusing on the news and on top of that, I get the joy of knowing I’m maybe annoying a moderately popular folk musician.

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UPDATE: On May 27, Clift put a bow on the project, which, all told, features 53 LPs and two additional EPs. 

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In addition to the 50 proper states, Clift also commissioned music for the Moon and the territories of the United States, and even received enough Rhode Island songs to constitute a bonus album. All told, the project features more than 500 original tunes, including a few written by Stelth Ulvang of The Lumineers. You can find his tracks on The Moon and Oklahoma albums below.

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Find all the albums here.

Send Great Job, Internet tips to gji@theonion.com

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Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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