Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State
Asthmatic Kitty, 2003
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/25/2006
Note to Sufjan Stevens: If you're going to record an album about my home state, you'd better make it good, since Michigan has a rich history of musical talent.
I was intrigued when Stevens, who is from Michigan, decided to record a 15-track collection devoted to his and my home state. It's his third disc and the first of his ambitious 50-state project (to date, he's only written about two states). After all, could Stevens sum up the rich diversity and history of the state in just one disc?
Turns out he can, but this music is so rustic and low-key that one would think Michigan is the most depressed state in the union. Instead of celebrating the state, Stevens writes odes to the unemployed in Flint, the homeless in Muskegon and the widows in Paradise (a tiny Upper Peninsula town).
Most of the disc has a backwoods folk appeal, using rustic guitars, woodwinds, light backup singers and banjo, most of which Stevens plays himself. Michigan has an interesting folk music scene, which Stevens taps into here, and the end result is often haunting, depressing and complex, equal parts love letter and mournful elegy.
Stevens mainly focuses on how great Michigan used to be and how it can achieve greatness again. The opener "Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)" is a stark piano ballad about the formerly great city ("Since the first of June / Lost my job and lost my room / I pretend to try / Even if I tried alone"). "All Good Naysayers" is a bit perkier but the lyrics make no sense, while "For The Widows..." is an ode to widows in Paradise and fathers in Ypsilanti (no, I don't know why either). Stevens uses only a banjo and some horns on this one, beneath lyrics like "Is there some idea to replace my life / Like a father to impress / Like a mother's mourning dress / If you ever make a mess, I'll do anything for you."
The sadness is made worse by Steven's hushed, smoky voice, which makes the occasional bright spots that much better, as on the love letter "Say Yes! To Michigan," a slogan the state adopted in the 80s. "Still, I never meant to go away / I was raised in this place / Still I often think of going back / To the farms," he says, sounding like he means it. "Tahquamenon Falls" is a nice instrumental piece as well, using bells and other percussion to create the mood.
"The Upper Peninsula" sounds good but the lyrics don't fit the song, singing about the despondency of a family with no money or hope, while "Holland" is a pleasant acoustic piece about a teenage summer. "Romulus" has a slight John Mayer feel but the lyrics are a sad "ode" to Stevens' mother ("We saw her once last fall / Our grandpa died in a hospital gown / She didn't seem to care / She smoked in her room and colored her hair / I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her."
The emotional and lyrical centerpiece here is "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head," an eight-minute elegy about the once-proud Motown. Opening with horns and bells, the song shifts into a swinging folk sound, while Stevens alternates between lamenting the city ("Once a great place / Now a prison") and rattling off a list of fond memories while overdubbed vocals quietly back him up. The piece closes with a church organ solo and a sustained single synthesizer note.
Some of the tracks don't have anything to do with Michigan, so Stevens just inserts random cities in the titles, while the closing "Vito's Ordination Song" sounds like an ode to a brother or son. The bonus track "Marching Band" sounds like the rest of the disc and is nothing special.
With this release, Stevens shows his idiosyncratic lyrics and debt to folk music, as well as effectively professes love for his home state. But the lyrics are too obtuse or sad to really resonate at times, and set to the somewhat happy music are even more cryptic. The project sounds more like Stevens is getting memories and personal demons off his back while letting the rest of the state knows he cares about it, but in doing so he fails to include the positive side and the rich history (both musical and otherwise) Michigan is known for.
Still, for a haunting indie-folk sound that most artists aren't making anymore, you can't go wrong with Stevens. Just avoid listening to it on a rainy day, and believe me when I say Michigan is not nearly as bleak and depressed as Stevens thinks it is.