Wednesday, February 11, 2009


47. Michigan by Sufjan Stevens

More and more it is becoming clear that Sufjan Stevens' 50 states project, wherein an album would be created with the title and focus on every US state, will never come to fruition. Too bad, he should have done Canadian provinces. It would have been a lot more feasible.

Now it's being rumoured that he never intended to do it from the start, that it was simply a joke that everyone else took too seriously. I don't believe that. Sufjan Stevens displayed such a love and interest in the two states that he started with that I can't believe he wouldn't have such a love for the rest of America. The 50 states project, more than anything else, represents his undying love for his country, and shows how dedicated he is to expressing this love. And, against all odds, these albums make me love America too.

Sufjan started, like it is said all good artists start, at home. Michigan was where he grew up, and Michigan is where he grew up - musically (lol). I often think about how Sufjan's songwriting technique seems very different than most artists. Rather than start with a melody, or even with lyrics, his songs seem to spring forth from a single subject. On Michigan, the entire songwriting process seemed to as simple be pulling elements and locations from the state and then writing songs about them.

The songs are fairly simple, too. The lyrics fall into the prose pattern of many other artists of the genre, but Sufjan's are usually the most understandable, although he does pack them with allusions and references. The instruments, although large in number, do mainly very simple things. Horns work their way up and down scales. Acoustic guitars pick some chords and are content to idle on them. Pianos mirror the vocal track. Even when the electric guitar wanders in, it merely chokes out a small solo number before retreating. And yet, despite this apparent minimalism, the songs display such warmth, such fullness and lushness, that you get the sense that every part was meticulously planned and perfected. It probably was.

Michigan is a collection of mostly quiet, contemplative songs, broken occasionally by a jazzy or tremendously upbeat number, centred around the majestic 8-minute number, "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!". It starts subdued, rises to the fervor of "Say Yes! To M!ch!gan", backs down again, and repeats this cycle onward and upward. Not every track is instantly memorable, but they all contain an undeniable quality. There are no bad parts to this album, but some parts stick out in particular.

Like, for instance, the part in "Say Yes! To M!ch!gan" where the dynamics redoubles and the pitch jumps up another tone. How can a song not even three minutes long contain such anticipation and indulgence? Or the opening bars of the following track, "The Upper Peninsula"? How can one man write both songs with the same level of emotional gravity, being so happy and melancholy with equal sincerity? Or the aforementioned song of Detroit? How can an 8-minute song seem so light, almost short, with the catchy quality that leaves you wanting more instantly after hearing it?

Sufjan displays this almost supernatural songwriting talent on moments such as this, and, in a certain way, on every note he lays down. And maybe his true ambitions will never be realized - maybe the 50 states project was doomed from the start, and maybe his great love for his country will go unrequited - but he has produced at least this piece of music, this state both of mind and land committed to music. How perfectly quaint and majestic for the state of both the great lakes and mighty Detroit.

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