Even though I usually stick to the coasts, I'll always have a place in my heart for Michigan -- I was born there, after all.
It also happens to be the first album in Sufjan Stevens' proposed fifty-state-album project, "Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State." Stevens' mellow indie-folk rules the album with a gentle hand, from sprightly folkpop to banjo balladry -- and it's as fun as it is complex and alluring.
It opens with a gentle piano, joined in by a chorus of horns. "It's the same outside/Driving to the riverside/I pretend to cry/Even if I cried alone," Stevens murmurs, embodying a worker who isn't working. Despite its simplicity, it's packed with self-trickery and windy dissatisfaction. "I forgot the part/Use my hands to use my heart/Even if I died alone..."
Then the tone totally changes with "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace," a sprightly little pop tune, and the folky banjo of "For The Windows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti." From there, he tries out variations of all his folky talents -- dreamlike folkpop, swaying wistful folk, sparkling xylophone, guitar ballads, and steady pipe organs leading into a bluesy ballad.
But the best songs of all are when Stevens combines all his musical influences into one enormous joyous mass of sound -- "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" is a glorious mishmash of pop, xylophone, piano, horns and folky interludes, blended into a great soaring epic. So is the luminous "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Muskegon)."
Sufjan Stevens is one of those rarest artists whose ambitions are dwarfed by their ability -- the guy is a truly brilliant musician and songwriter, which makes his fifty state album goal (assuming he still has it) doesn't seem beyond his reach. Well, time constrains, but he could wring beauty and life from each state.
Certainly his musical ability is astounding -- smooth piano played with wistfulness and energy, a sizzle of electric in "The Upper Peninsula," and mellow acoustic guitar and plucked banjo to give it that folky unpolished sound, along with some slow drums in the background. They're earthy and solid, yet somehow still very polished and solid.
But the music is more colourful than that, with a xylophone played with the delicacy of windchimes. Some of the songs are just that -- xylophone tinkling at us prettily, and nothing else. And many songs are backed by a chorus of horns -- sometimes they blare happily at us, sometimes they groan mournfully through the melodies.
Stevens' voice is well-suited to all this -- deep, smooth and meditative, but he can sing a more energetic tune when he wants to. And he packs plenty of meaning into deceptively simple lyrics, full of Michigan's woes, love of God, past experiences, improving the world, poverty, and just his love of the state. "If the lakes took/The place of the sea/If the cars drove themselves/Way to be!/Opposite the trains moving in/Rivers run interstate, Michigan!"
Few freakfolk artists can even approach the brilliance of Sufjan Stevens' "Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State," a practically perfect little folkpop gem. Say YES to "Michigan!"