Search This Blog

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Greetings From Michigan...


1) Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid); 2) All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!; 3) For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsi­lanti; 4) Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!; 5) The Upper Peninsula; 6) Tahquamenon Falls; 7) Holland; 8) Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!); 9) Romulus; 10) Alanson, Crooked River; 11) Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie; 12) They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Muskegon); 13) Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?); 14) Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou); 15) Vito's Ordination Song.

General verdict: Candy-wrapped sympathy for the working man: complex, cute, and colorfully colorless.

This, I believe, was the album that firmly put Stevens on the map, garnering a plethora of reviews and endearing the man to all the hotspots in the indie community — although still far away from the degree of commercial success he'd achieve in the next decade. The accompanying PR move was that the album was going to be Sufjan's first in a series of fifty, as he promised to paint musical portraits of each of the not-so-well-united States of Sufjan Stevens. And who knows? the promise might even have been a rashly sincere one; but as time went by, he probably began to realize that it is one thing to write music about a place where you were born and raised and where you know every nook and corner — it's quite another thing to write music about, uhm... Wyoming, for instance, because you'd be faced with the choice of squandering all your hard-earned cash on plane and train tickets or talking trash about locations you know nothing of. Con­sequently, the project was scrapped, but not before it had gained Sufjan plenty of recognition with two of his most acclaimed albums to date.

This is where Sufjan as his loving fans truly know him emerges in all his buttery might, and it is certainly nice that this had to be a lengthy love poem to his homeland. There is plenty to love about Michigan, I guess, and plenty to feel sorry about, and I do not dare to doubt, even for one moment, the sincerity of Sufjan's feelings: the two chief themes that run through the album are admiration for the natural beauty of the place (largely reflected in the instrumentals) and sorrow for the tough fates of its inhabitants, inevitably mixed with optimistic hopes for the future. At the same time, even if you are one of those «death to America!» types, the music that Stevens writes has no obligatory connections to any specific time or place — you are perfectly free to use the state of Michigan as an allegory for humanity in general; good or bad, this whole record is about vibes, and vibes, like radiowaves, transcend their places of origin.

These, however, are easy compliments to give away. It would be much harder to explain why this album does absolutely nothing for me, a big fan of so many of Sufjan's biggest influences, from Paul McCartney to Brian Wilson to old folkies and bluesmen and jazzmen and all sorts of psychedelic pop gurus. Let us give it a crude try, striking the first flint with, well, ʽFlint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)ʼ that opens the album — theoretically, on a good note, with a modestly arranged intimate ballad that puts Sufjan and his piano square in the center, and also lets us know that the man's first and foremost concern is about the people: his love ode to Michigan begins not with a happy outpouring of amazement at the scenery, but with an impersonated com­plaint from an unnamed resident of one of Michigan's biggest shitholes.

The song might be poised at greatness, and yet I sense no magic in it. Thankfully, it is not mani­pulatively bad, like a lot of those stripped-down, melancholically-programmed tear-jerkers that indie musicians like to syndicate out to cheap arthouse movies. No, Stevens is better than that: his own melancholy is kind, subtle, and never irritatingly intrusive. But he has a different problem — make this stuff poignant and remarkable. The quiet piano chords play a McCartney-esque pop melody without any signs of a striking McCartney-esque resolution. The quiet vocals sing along to the same melody without being overtly happy or overtly sad. Perhaps Sufjan's very point here is to write a song whose emotional impact would be triggered by lack of any explicit emotionality, a song that would shake up the listener by having the chorus line "even if I died alone" repeatedly pronounced as if he were already dead. Perhaps he even makes that point for many listeners: to my ears, the effect is pleasant and soothing, but bland.

One aspect where the album fails rather miserably is social message — of which there is plenty. Michigan is a troubled state, and in many ways, the album shows Sufjan's empathy towards its inhabitants — and at least on one track, the aptly titled ʽDetroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!ʼ even tries to cheer them up by glorifying its history. But most, if not all, of Sufjan's music is «doll­house music» — it really sounds like an ensemble / orchestra of fluffy teddy bears and china ladies and Barbies and tin soldiers — and while this is definitely a novel way to present your social message, especially when compared with the likes of, say, Bruce Springsteen, I wouldn't necessarily call it a more efficient way. Not only do the eight minutes of ʽDetroitʼ consist of largely just one endless, albeit jazzily complex and polyphonic, groove, but the instrumentation and arrangement of the groove, heavy on chimes, soft brass and gossamer vocals, makes it into a playful pixie dance: unfortunately, a dance that is way too quiet and even to excite me senses, and also a dance that few of the genuinely affected citizens of Michigan would probably deem a suitable reflection of their troubles — although I certainly cannot speak on behalf of unemployed Michi­ganders, most of whom could not afford to buy a copy of the album anyway.

Honestly, I much prefer the instrumentals. ʽTahquamenon Fallsʼ is a pretty ambient-ish represen­tation of falling water with several layers of pretty chimes — and later, the same chimes come back in a different pattern for ʽAlanson, Crooked Riverʼ. The piano melody of ʽRedfordʼ should probably be defined as «incidental music», but the main simple theme is soothing and never tries to say more than it is meant to. But the vocal numbers? I do not really even know where to start. Too many of them, to my ears, sound like smooth jazz merged with generic folk, with complexity emerging due to multiple sonic layers rather than interesting melodies — listen to ʽAll Good Naysayersʼ and tell me that its base melody is better than the most average piano theme to the most average soft jazz album you've ever heard and watch me not believing you. The only reason why these things occasionally turn into quasi-psychedelic experiences is because he is obsessed with overdubs, so there will be backup vocals a-plenty, brass passages, chimes, guitars, and each of these parts will be equally cuddly, and the gritty world of Michigan will be all wrapped up in pink ribbons, and the little teddy bears will plink-plonk on their drums and the tiny pixies will coo and whee and whoopee, and all the homeless in Muskegon will be happy as fuck.

For the sake of accuracy, there are a few moments of would-be classic Americana on the album, especially when Sufjan picks up his first love, the banjo: ʽThe Upper Peninsulaʼ starts out like a fairly bona fide neo-country number, with the banjo, the tired electric guitar, and the opening lines ("I live in America / with a pair of Payless shoes") announcing the arrival of the world-weary, ragged prota­gonist. But this style requires a certain degree of rawness that is unattainable from Stevens, a sonic perfectionist wrapping everything in pristine production cellophane — and when he sings "I lost my mind, I lost my life, I lost my job, I lost my wife", I believe him about as much as I'd believe Al Capone giving a speech at a charity ball. Perhaps there is some sort of understanding that sweetness and smoothness are the new pain, now that the 21st century is here, that I have totally missed, but if so, I'm not sure if I really want to catch up.

Wrapping this whole shit up in a simple way, I cannot remember even a single song from this ordeal — nothing but this overall feel of sickly sweetness and wound-up teddy bears prancing around mulberry trees, which, honestly, is not the kind of feel I'd like to associate with the state of Michigan, even if I've never been there and this guy spent most of his life there. It is probably true that many fans of colorful, inventive, challenging lush pop music à la Beach Boys will call this attitude narrow-minded; but as far as I am concerned, at the heart of the Beach Boys lay a musical genius producing endless series of emotional jolts — Sufjan Stevens, in comparison, is a technical craftsman and nothing more. Of course, this is only the beginning of the journey, and it is still somewhat fascinating to watch the level of that craft go up and up and up over the next decade, but the level of emotional depth displayed on Michigan would consistently stay the same, because lack of genius is not something that you remedy with an extra pack of overdubs — or, for that matter, an extra ten words in the title of your next song.


  1. Surprised to see no mention of for the Widows of Paradise, which I'd consider the best song on this one. Interesting review, but I can't say I've ever associated doll houses and teddy bears with Sufjan's music.

    I doubt you'd like it but I'd be curious to see your take on one of Sufjan's biggest influences: the Danielson Famile. Danielson is almost like an inverted version of Sufjan; unhinged and carnival-esque where Sufjan is precise, explicitly Christian where Sufjan is subtle, and screeching vocals instead of Sufjan's whispered.
    Nevertheless, the commonalities are many: indie folk with marching band arrangements, Christian spirituality, and theatrical costumes. If nothing else, it's pretty funny to read early reviews of Sufjan that label him as a "Danielson Famile off-shoot"

    1. The Danielson Families sounds interesting. Thank you for the recommendation!

  2. I like this album a lot more than George, but he gets at something I hadn't thought about - the songs about poor Michiganders are basically about how an OUTSIDER feels about them (even when they lyrics are in the first person) - which is, among other things, why the emotions are the same as in an actually autobiographical song like "Holland."

    Come to think of it, maybe that simultaneously detached & basically optimistic perspective makes it very much an album of it's time and place, when it sort of seemed like if only we could beat the neoconservatives then the nice progressive liberals would fix everything, just like the New Deal.

  3. This album is a grower. It left virtually no impression on me the first time I heard it, but now I love it to death