Review Summary: Americana with a twist.
Quirkiness comes in many forms. Inserting silly instruments into songs to make them sound more interesting, going for long, complex and sometimes very specific song titles, and promising to release an album dedicated to every US state, are all examples. Stevens has many times been guilty of all these quirks, and never more so than on Michigan, which he claimed is the first of a series of albums dedicated to each US state. 10 years on, and the album series currently stands at 2 - and at this rate of 1 album per 5 years it's going to take good old Sufjan another 240 years to fulfil that promise. So, unless computer apocalypse happens and we all upload our minds in order to live indefinitely, we can safely rule out this rather rash claim, from which Stevens has since distanced himself.
However, though they might set your teeth on edge a bit, these quirks are all things that set Stevens apart from the bunch. He's not your run-of-the-mill Americana-merchant - instead of going for the popular 'weary hobo' look of many of the genre with a big beard and a green shirt, he's remarkably well groomed and more resembles a car salesman than a rootsy singer-songwriter. His penchant for unexpected melodic shifts and whispered, sometimes even child-like vocals makes for strange combinations of sometimes genius, sometimes trivial musical excellence.
'Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State' is a loving homage to Stevens' home state, and through the celebration, mourning, and lavish descriptions of the livelihoods of its people and its great mountains and lakes one can really sense that the singer-songwriter's heart is in the music. Sometimes the music is elegantly straightforward, as on 'For The Widows In Paradise…'. This is a devastatingly simple banjo-led ballad which only uses four chords to get its message across. It's a straight-up love song, which is surprising given its long title, and is a perfect example of how simplicity and well-formed lyrics can combine to beat complexity hands down. With its horn backing and wistful male-female harmonies, it shows so well how meaningful 'humming and strumming' can be.
The rest of album consists of titles mostly referencing place-names, pretty acoustic picking patterns, and considered, breathy vocal lines. However, this is not all, and there are odd and absorbing moments, a freak-out guitar solo in 'The Upper Peninsula' being one. Stevens has a remarkably wide musical vision, and he's not afraid to chuck in some xylophone-minimalism for good measure ('Tahquamenon Falls' and 'Alanson, Crooked River'). Michigan doesn't slap you in the face with the quality of it's lyrical content, as some of Conor Oberst's work does, but the words do convey simple, timeless concepts and places very well. The production is earthy and pretty dry in places, which makes the record feel authentic and true to it's vision.
You might argue that Stevens has opened the door too wide, and let in all manner of weird elements that his songs could do without. Maybe he has, but in comparison to Iron & Wine, whose first few albums are so consistently similar that you can hardly tell when one song ends and another begins, Stevens often comes out the victor. Here is a songwriter who is skilled with melody, and is unafraid to reach into the musical abyss to find what he needs to make it stand out - and who can criticise that? Americana needs oddballs like Sufjan Stevens to make it fresh and interesting, and 'Michigan', whilst sometimes straying into self-indulgence, does just that.