Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State
(Asthmatic Kitty; 2003)
By Garin Pirnia | 20 November 2003
There’s a slight dichotomy with Michigan: there’s the sprawling beauty of trees and lakes of its rural regions contrasted with the infamous city of Detroit, which is perhaps best known (outside of Eminem and Henry Ford) for its excessively high murder rate. But Michigan is a staple of the quiet Midwest, and happens to be the home state of singer/songwriter impresario Sufjan Stevens, who now resides in New York with an obvious nostalgia for the Great Lake State.
As devoted as it may be, Michigan certainly isn’t an album that basks in the idealism of a man looking back with fondness. With his banjo in tow, he has created a concept album covering a complete range of beauty, optimism and anguish that comprise the state and its inhabitants. Stevens personifies Michigan in all its glory and sociological destituteness with lengthy titles such as: “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!), “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)" and “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace.” In doing so, he has incorporated a myriad of instruments including banjo, glockenspiel, flute, vibraphone, recorder, oboe, xylophone, trumpet and guitar — all of which are creatively arranged in the mix, especially Stevens’ use of the banjo, which, in a singer/songwriter context, is the most innovative I’ve heard it used since Travis’ "Sing" and Low’s “In the Drugs.”
Opening track “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)" is undeniably evocative of Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me, which put a direct and devastating focus on the wayward city; the tranquil piano and trumpet propel song acts as a dirge for the lost people of Flint, evoked through bruised optimism: "I pretend to try/ even if I try alone." “Say Yes! To Michigan,” on the other hand, could be the Michigan’s tourist’s board theme song. Stevens joyously sings, with background vocals from Danielson Famile members Elin and Megan Smith: “Still I never meant to go away/ I was raised in the place/ Still I think often about going back to the farms, golden arms.”
“Tahquamenon Falls," an instrumental that creates a cascading waterfall effect of xylophone notes trembling down the mountainside, is one of several pieces where Stevens attempts to share the sentient beauty of the state through visually evocative arrangements and, like "Falls," they are very effective. “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)," for example, is a melodramatic instrumental driven by sweeping score that sounds perfectly suited for a movie. On “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” the omnipresent banjo beautifully accents Stevens’ passionate devotion: “If there’s anything to say/ if there’s anything to do/ if there’s any other way, I’ll do anything for you.” His lyrics also manage to approach tales of love from back home, focusing just as much on the subjective devastation as much as the larger social problems. On “Romulus,” one of the more specific tales on Michigan, he sings about being ashamed of a girl; "Holland,” referring to a city in Michigan, approaches love with the kind of preemptive defeat that had opened the record: “Fall in love and then fall apart/ things will end before they start.”
Sufjan Stevens is a folk impelled musician who can sing, write, play and record his own material in a similar realm as Badly Drawn Boy and, at times, Scottish sensation Damien Rice. What really sets Sufjan apart, however, is his ability to invite us into his mindset and transcend into another world full of ethereal, dreamy, romantic and consistently beautiful music. Michigan is, even with its realistic descriptions of defeat and squalor, ultimately a love letter to the people he grew up whom have seen hardships but manage to march on because somehow hope still thrives. This is an inspiring, personal, lush, heartfelt and multi-layered record where every song tells an intricate story of a certain time and place; the tone is melodic and introspective, but never completely falters into gloomy territory like the song titles insinuate. As tourism initiatives go, this may be oddly realistic, but it’s the sincerity of Stevens’ songs that manage to reveal Michigan as the passionate and humane place it is — even with, or perhaps because of, its misfortunes — and his basic message still reads as a nostalgic and longing "there really is no place like home."