REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens: Michigan
Sufjan Stevens: Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State [Asthmatic Kitty/Soundsfamilyre, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? baroque winter swim
The opening track on Michigan, "Flint," is the most glorious sad song that was released this year. It's a near-happy piano-line, a lullabye voice, the dusting of quiet trumpets - and it's flush with that most dangerous of sorrows, the kind that's so beautiful you want to lose yourself in it, to swim in it, to drown in it. When the piano begins to double up on itself, two minutes in, the allure is so strong that it's almost impossible to keep hearing the lyrics, to stay on guard. If you're not careful, the words of ennui and death brush past, working their way to your lips. And then you're in it; adrift in the song, afloat in its dulcet despair, repeating Sufjan Stevens' chorus: "even if I died alone..." I can imagine it taking souls to the very edge, lulling them into misery, wanting to stay forever in its warm, solemn embrace. I can imagine it killing.
So it's too Stevens' credit that he doesn't let the song fade to completion, or leave a minor-chord trailing into oblivion. No, instead the chilling tones break apart completely, like ice on a lake, springing into a human patter of drums, guitar and vibraphone. "All good thoughts," he sings, and what follows is an album of gorgeous avant folk, chilled to perfection, lively and intimate and original. It's an homage to and a condemnation of Stevens' home state, ennui and dissatisfaction slipping in among the lakes and bears, the snow-mobiles and Sturgeon Bay. Michigan isn't very firmly rooted, however. The lyrics fade in and out of the Great Lake State - for all the long song titles and references to Sagunaw, these aren't quite postcards. One can imagine the songs being relocated to other landscapes - though perhaps not Arizona, - but for anyone who isn't a Michigander, it is a blessing that these songs travel so well.
Furthermore, although Michigan is (at best) a work that 'sticks to its strengths,' there is an impressive variety to the acoustic plucks, hushed harmonies, chimes and horns. Banjo takes center-stage on "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," ghostly bells and glockenspiel on "Tahquamenon Falls." There's an organ breakdown at the height of "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!," and when the English horns flutter free on "Holland," they are like a disapproving murder of crows. Whereas "Detroit!" sometimes feels too long, and at nine minutes, "Oh God Where Are You Now?" certainly is, the patchwork instrumental hymn of "Redford" disappears prematurely. Michigan cradles the listener in its gorgeous arrangements, in its repeating themes of home, nature, God, and loss. It dips like a canoe, silver water streaming from it. While some of the sounds blur together, they're far too lovely to ignore, and too thoughtful to dismiss
Ultimately, however, the grandest thing about Michigan is the potential that it holds. Not just for Sufjan Stevens' further blossoming as an artist - this is his third LP - but for the fruit of his ambition. According to his website, Greetings from Michigan is merely the first in a series of fifty records: one album for each state. The array of instruments Stevens draws upon on this record, the wealth of melody and sound and soul, suggest that he is well equipped for this undertaking. Should he truly be up for it, prepared to devote the years and years, the hours and hours, I can only imagine The 50 States as a bona fide masterpiece. Let's hope.