Sufjan Stevens – Michigan

Sufjan Stevens

In the age of modern media, the distinction between art and commerce has never become more cloudy. Whether due to the unrefined gaze of those who feed entertainment to meet the stereotypical desires of the clamoring unwashed masses or the corrupting influence of money on personal expression, it’s hard to find artists who genuinely seem to be walking hand in hand with muses that aren’t trying to slip dollar bills in their back pockets. Certainly, too much can be made of the fact that David Bowie is the prototypical “musical chameleon,” but the point is well made. His brilliance lies in his ability to reinvent himself and push into new artistic realms, whether that path intersects with a demographic variable or not. And although he has only been around to release two full-length solo albums, Sufjan Stevens has already proven himself worthy of this lofty ideal. From the exotic, Middle Eastern folk tones of his debut (2000’s A Sun Came) to the sparkling electronic sound sculpting in 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, with detours to take on the added role of banjo brother for the avant-garde carnival known as the Danielson Famile, Stevens is a man whose creative winds are constantly blowing in all directions. With Michigan, he may have delivered his definitive statement.
The first in a proposed 50-CD set, one to tribute each state in the union, Michigan is simultaneously a recombination and revision of the most notable of his talents and a staggering confirmation of his prodigious gifts as a songwriter and arranger. Joined by various members of the Danielson Famile (Daniel, Elin, and Megan Smith provide backup vocals) and the Sounds Familyre/Asthmatic Kitty extended family (Half-Handed Cloud’s John Ringhofer), the album gives every impression that it was a monumental project to coordinate, both conceptually and literally, as the Brooklyn transplant now revisits his Great Lakes past. As such, Steven’s personality is the undeniable prime mover in that mix, as he plays no less than 22 instruments and is the central character that the narratives revolve around, having been drawn either from his childhood or history of his home state. And, in general, his genius comes packaged in three variants: the hushed, pristine ballad, the complexly shifting lounge bop, and the lushly flowing pop song.
The opening “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” falls into the first category, with sad, barely adorned piano phrases carrying Stevens’ hushed reedy croon pushing out a contemplative first-person account of disconsolate solitude and desperate joblessness. At once, it’s a gorgeous extension of the melodic gifts he’d only hinted at previously, with lines like “I forgot the part / Lost my hands to use my heart” providing painfully effecting imagery to match the tonal mood of the piece and make the sense of loss amazingly tangible. Another song of loss follows in short order, with “The Upper Peninsula,” where the imminent loss of both family and a way of life weigh down the funereal organ and intricate banjo finger-picking that form its sonic backdrop. The light, airy “Holland,” a song built on little more than strummed acoustic guitar and solitary piano strikes and his fragilely hushed voice tracing the minor key melody. With a recorder rising to add a slight Middle Eastern touch, the word “delicate” is almost too calloused an utterance with which to describe it. Similar is “Romulus,” a simple yet stirring reminiscence of childhood that presents a child’s sense of confusion and loss over a wayward mother, progression from internalizing the associated shame to placing it on the person who rightly deserves it. Obviously, from this arrangement, comedian Steve Martin’s claim that the banjo can’t provide the foil for sad music is proven wrong.
Just as impressive is Stevens’ range as a pop song arranger. The slight bossanova lilt of “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!” and the similarly laboriously titled lounge pop of “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” are almost impossibly complex, layering horns, pianos, guitars, and multi-part harmonies into obscure time signatures. Here, the narratives switch from the autobiographical meditations that matched the more solemn arrangements to mirror the complex history of the state, entertaining ideas of social progress while checking off a list of social ills and nostalgic trivia. For the most part, these tracks come closest to approximating the electronic intricacy of Enjoy Your Rabbit, shifting and bending into every ornate corner available. “They Also Mourn the Dead Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)” is a typically loose, jangly arrangement in this type, with the complicated swirl sweeping everything up in its dizzying twirl, leaving Stevens to meander through arrangements so split with nuance that his lyrics are broken not line by line, but often with a remaining word or even syllable simultaneously starting a new verse while completing the one that preceded it.
Somewhere between the austere simplicity of his balladry and shape-shifting arrangements are his soaring, near orchestral pop arrangements, typified by tracks like “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” a track where images of domesticity mingle with a rising tide of trumpet, piano, and harmonies in a triumphant and verdant arc. Stevens’ spirituality is inherent in the vaguely cloaked references in the hymn-like “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw),” with his protagonist smashing all clichés in his sincere calling out for contact with an omnipresent deity over cymbal swells and regal trumpet drones. The closing “Vito’s Ordination Song,” a gorgeously meditative shuffle that twinkles and flows to the extent that it begins to blur and fold over on itself, is a fitting finale, fading out to leave the solemn simplicity and atmospheric ether of piano and trumpet.
It all adds up to an album that Stevens has admitted is largely too extravagant to perform in a live setting, even with the help of the 13-member Michigan Militia Choir that he has enlisted as his touring band. Rarely, have artists reinvented themselves so startlingly in the span of three albums, nor covering as much ground thematically and texturally as Stevens has to this point in his progression. Michigan is not only a tribute to a home state, nor an exploration of an artist’s past, but a fascinatingly universal examination of human existence wrapped in a sophisticated work of compositional craftsmanship. Add on the retro kitsch of the album artwork and you have an album that actually lives up to the amazing conceptual goals it has set for itself. In the end, it aspires to being no more than the highest ideals of pop music.