Sufjan Stevens: presents…Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State (Asthmatic Kitty, 2003)

by Brent

Sufja Stevens MichiganWhimsical. Breathtaking. Aching. Intricate.

All of these words could readily be used to describe the latest release from a musician/songwriter by the name of Sufjan Stevens. Yet, none of these adjectives fully explain the wonder of Greetings From Michigan. In a word, this CD is simply brilliant.

I’m not prone to just throwing the word “brilliant” around, using it to describe any artist or CD that happens to tickle my ears favorably. No, on Greetings from Michigan Sufjan Stevens demonstrates that he is simply a brilliant, brilliant songwriter and musician. How else could anyone describe the man who created the wonderful journey that is Greetings from Michigan? There is nothing else in “Christian” music like this CD, and, similar to (and perhaps exceeding) the amazing White Songbook by Joy Electric, Greetings from Michigan is ahead of and transcends its time.

In Greetings from Michigan, Stevens writes and records 15 songs interpreting his home state of Michigan. The cd, rumoured to be the first in a series of 50 CD’s dedicated to the states of USA, features a wistful, northern folk quality in its sound, utilizing instruments such as banjos, english horns, oboes, and trumpets, along with the guitars, bass and percussion one usually expects. Lyrically, Greetings from Michigan tackles issues that people living in Michigan daily face such as the decay of their cities, the cold, and urban sprawl, while skillfully combining these images with laments of spiritual longing and intense devotion. In fact, it is the power of words like “I was ashamed of her” (referring to the fictitious characters’ neglectful mother in “Romulus”), “Rest in my arms, sleep in my bed” (“Vito’s Ordination Song”), and “”The Devil is hard on my face again” (“Oh God, Where are You Now?”), and “I lost my mind, I lost my life, I lost my job, I lost my wife” (in “The Upper Peninsula) that rises this CD from the level of curiously ornate arrangements to a powerful, emotional statement. Somehow, in Greetings from Michigan, Sufjan Stevens captures the spirit of the landforms of Michigan, and documents how these landforms have affected the people living off the land. He accomplishes this lofty feat in such a natural way, fusing the history of the region with sounds and arrangements that perfectly mirror the idealized images that come to mind when one thinks of the state, that it’s not hard to believe that Sufjan hails from the Great Lake State. Combining sociological ideas with unique music arrangements and passionate sacred lyrics, it’s difficult to believe that a more interesting CD will be released this year.

Musically, Greetings From Michigan runs the gambit from quiet ballads (“Flint, Romulus”), that feature Sufjan‘s vulnerable sounding voice and his skillful banjo picking and piano playing, to fully arranged, intricate, cascading songs like “All Good Naysayers”, “Oh Detroit”, and They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black”. Incorporating a wide range of instruments including the aforementioned guitars, bass, percussion, brass, woodwinds, electronics, the songs on Michigan often display a cinematic, yet sentimental quality to them, especially on “Say Yes to Michigan”, and “Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie”, with their lush, swelling arrangements and slower tempo. Greetings from Michigan also features two twinkling instrumentals inspired by bodies of moving water in Michigan. These two songs (“Alanson, Crooked River”, and “Tahquamenon Falls”) take electronic bells and converts them into organic sounding waterfalls and streams. In moments like these, it is quite amazing to think that Stevens plays nearly all the instruments in this release, given the mastery he achieves in his performances. Greetings from Michigan is equal parts folk, jazzy, dreamy, quant, dark, experimental, electronic, and exceedingly intelligent.

What else can I say about this release? It’s a jaw dropping wonder that combines the best elements of social commentary, contemplative psalms, smart arrangements, with a clear, humble voice buoying it all. Greetings From Michigan has leapt past many of my most cherished CD’s to become one of my all-time favorites, tickling my ears and making me think while touching my heart. And I’m not even from Michigan. Brilliant.

(Sufjan Stevens has also released by mp3 6 outtakes from the Greetings from Michigan studio sessions that could easily stand on their own as a companion EP. Download them for free at his web site)

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