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Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Michigan

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Review date: Jul. 25, 2003

Midwest Magnificence


Sufjan Stevens, multi-instrumentalist and honorary member of the Danielson Famile, plays more than 20 instruments on his latest album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State. As importantly, the Michigan native movingly sums up the complex sentiments embodied by a state which is a ceaseless concatenation of incongruous landscapes and cultures. It's jarring to think about: Detroit and the Upper Peninsula have the same Senators (Carl Levin-D and Spencer Abraham-R, for the civic trainspotters), but remain two utterly different worlds. And yet, there is something universal that seems to bind all the disparate regions of the state, a Midwestern milieu of pride and failure. Stevens recognizes and decisively captures this "something" with 15 charming, slightly bizarre, and often haunting folk-pop songs.

The concept only brushes the tip of the sand dune for Stevens, whose fragile singing voice connotes great sincerity, bringing to mind singers like Alan Sparhawk of Low and Jeff Gramm of Aden. Stevens carries an obvious attachment to the human subjects of his songs, the often downtrodden residents of post-industrial cities and sprawling suburbs. It's clear that the singer is confident in his lyrics, which he should be. The accompanying vocal harmonies, provided by Elin, Daniel, and Megan Smith of the Danielson Famile, as well as Monique and Vito Aiuto, are also brilliant and seamless.

Sufjan (I feel like I can call him Sufjan) plays his music with grandeur and sorrow, like Neutral Milk Hotel stubbornly demanding that the listener stay seated for a restless emotional trip in order to appreciate the work as a whole, for its tragedies as well as its victories. Unquestionably, Michigan deserves the commitment. From the opening notes, the quality of this record is apparent. The forlorn piano at the start of "Flint: For the Unemployed and Underpaid" has a magnetic head-turning quality enhanced by Sufjan's singing, which follows the melody. Everything about the piece is simple (a bit of a snare, since the album later features more difficult arrangements): the piano and the trumpet softly balance Sufjan's lament about lost jobs and dying alone.

"For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti" then resonates with eerie echoes of doom and eternity. Sufjan repeats "I did everything for you" over and over, and the song ends without a definitive conclusion. He manipulates the listener, withholds the easy satisfaction of narrative totality, and this is completely welcome because the music is so frank, so unpretentious, so clearly and candidly a vignette of someone's real experiences.

Then we drive north, over the Mackinac Bridge, to "The Upper Peninsula," on which Sufjan sings from the perspective of a local resident:

"I live in America / with a pair of Payless shoes / The Upper Peninsula / and the television news / I've seen my wife at the K-Mart / In strange ideas, we live apart."

Sufjan-as-Peninsula dweller then loses his wife for reasons unclear, and whisks us off to "Tahquamenon Falls," which based on the music sounds as though it's an idyllic snow kingdom. The Upper Peninsula songs are dramatic, but neither uplifting nor heart-wrenching: a theatrical interlude.

But the histrionics cease for "Holland," Sufjan's ode to his hometown, and "Detroit, Lift up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)." The first is almost too personal to fully access, while the second begins as an ecstatic plea, in the style of an inspirational radio spot from the 1950s promoting local pride, for Detroit to recover its elegant past. "Detroit" spans eight-and-a-half minutes of unexpected transitions and prolonged interludes. It is the epic poem of the album, and ends with three minutes of wandering ambience.

"Romulus" regains the simplicity of the early moments, and once more bears great honesty conveyed through the normal tragedies of people, grandparents in this instance. Sufjanís words here render any interpretative explanations pointless and legitimize all attempts to seek out Michigan.

Finally, concept albums require conclusive endings. So Sufjan builds on the soft and slow beginnings of "Vito's Ordination Song" until the stereo stream floods over with discrete parts, before winding down with a final, drifting piano tune. A perfect exit, like driving down US-23 across the Ohio border while NPR fades into smooth jazz.

Michigan, during and after listening to it, provides much gratification. In lyrics, in music, and in spirit, Sufjan has clearly invested incredible emotional effort in these songs and, given that he played almost all of the music himself, physical effort as well. The directness and intensity that a group like Low put into their records is here, and the aesthetic is not dissimilar. This is clearly one of the best records from 2003.

By Ben Tausig

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