Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State
Asthmatic Kitty/Sounds Familyre
I’ve lived all but one of my twenty-four years in Michigan; twelve years of that spent in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula and the rest like a roving wart on the middle of the mitten. I’ll be the first to tell you it’s a beautiful state, but I’ll follow that with a whisper about how desperately I’m looking forward to getting out of its grip. I have a kindred spirit in Sufjan Stevens, and he has already succeeded in our common goal by relocating to Brooklyn. This distance has given him the ability to reflect and craft the most beautiful document inspired by Michigan I’ve ever heard.
Twelve of the album’s fifteen tracks feature specific locations in their titles, but Stevens merely uses the locations as an evocation of mood. Stevens eschews the garage sounds of Detroit and opts for the jazzy post-rock spirit of Chicago crossed with the broken folk of popish troubadour Badly Drawn Boy. From the slushy backwoods banjo of “The Upper Peninsula” to the twinkling vibraphone ripples of “Tahquamenon Falls” to “Detroit,” with its playful time signature changes and chiming chords, to the lovely Vince Guaraldi piano with Stereolab-ish backing vocals on “All Good Naysayers,” Stevens has all of the bittersweet bases covered.
Having read some of the lyrics in the liner notes prior to listening, I was ready to take umbrage at the less than flattering take Stevens turns in on “The Upper Peninsula.” After listening to them in context though, I don’t see the song — with its lines about Payless Shoes, K-Mart visits, snowmobiles and broken windows — as satire or ridicule but as a slightly more isolated or removed microcosm of middle America. Stevens commiserates with all of his characters because he’s so familiar with the surroundings in which he has set them.
Like I said before, this album has me floored. It doesn’t lessen the desire to leave Michigan but it does make me smile to know there is another person out there who experienced the state with the same breathlessness and exasperation I have. I’ve made it a small goal of mine to get all of my fellow Michigan-living friends to listen to this album at least once, but honestly anyone who is now living, or has ever lived, in rural America will be greeted with wave after wave of familiar sentiments and sounds on this record.