Review Summary: Makes me wish I could afford a banjo.
What struck me during a first listen of Michigan
was that it simply seemed a collection of weather; Stevens had created a naturalistic advertisement for the state – as old slogan “Say YES! To Michigan” attested – basking in lakeside crafted by wintry arrangements. However, by dedicating his homeland fifteen tracks instead of one, each song became more than simply a windswept landscape, thereon combining with crisis: this was when “Flint (For The Unemployed and Underpaid)” stopped merely being an array of piano spells. This is when it crossed my mind I wasn’t simply hearing cold environments, and when the song transitioned into its unravelling city, its population and their sombre tales of job redundancy and gritty crime.
And for every song, the complexity became on a level that simply one
song could not live up to – the concept, about the happiness and sadness of the state - the reasons why and how – flourished. So the most significant thing to say about Michigan
- and should it continue beyond Illinois
, the hyperbolic fifty states project - is that it’s sheer enlightenment. Whether or not Stevens is plucking a publicity stunt out of his fans’ eagerness is left uncertain, but there is something in his home-state hello that makes Michigan
as genuine a greeting as possible.
Stevens’ hush is one of the most affirming aspects of each song, conceptually or by track. In the bare, acoustic apocalypses, a calmed voice is the biggest compliment he can pay; “For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fathers in Ypsilanti” is gently whispered, but driven with fear by piano and banjo, its bluegrass backdrop providing a darker, more telling story for Stevens to unravel. “The Upper Peninsula” again calls upon his vocal restrain, but delves into a more graphic sense of desperation. At each stage Michigan
enters, Stevens’ is pensive, meditating his emotion for the grander scheme and letting his music do the speaking.
Even as the album takes eclectic turns, Stevens remains as much a spectator as the listener. His delicate voice is a murmur amidst madness in “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head”, a vast and amplified meeting of absolutely everything (and anything). At first, it’s an accidental anthem, with the blend of keyboards, chimes and noise so drowning it seems a miracle for Stevens and his vocal accompaniments to collaborate with. The horns – shining high above the already impressive effect they have made on the album - make it even bigger, separating the four-minute sing along with another four of contemplation and climax, Stevens simply building and building his Great idea
And for the track’s entirety, Stevens’ voice is as subtle and solemn as it is for “Romulus”. Here is his personal peak on Michigan
, the childhood nostalgia still hiding under soft guitar and startling banjo. The quiet strums of guitar and memory here present a state beyond social or physical disaster, drawing upon the less grand opposites: an all-too important world of family and nostalgia. “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” plummets into the same conscientious mode of soul-searching, and for nine minutes the pattern revolves. Suddenly, Michigan
is not simply about where Stevens was brought up, or where there are problems, or where these problems diminish and evolve – instead, we are left to wonder how he – or whoever he may be, at this time - felt and feels, whether thriving or suffocating in his home.
By the end of “Vito’s Ordination Song”, Stevens instils hope for his fable state. It’s still a sober finale - a post-rock discipline rising and falling from and to depression – but, to say the least, it remains uncertain; wherever Michigan
is heading – and it certainly is heading somewhere – it is still a state set to sleep. Michigan
is the truest celebration of beautiful nature, complex problems and humane emotion I have ever heard, and it’s the classic Sufjan Stevens could go another forty-eight trying to recreate. But as “Vito’s Ordination Song” stoops into its final downward spiral, I can’t help but think there’s no ‘second home’ for him as worthy.