Sufjan Stevens – Michigan
Asthmatic Kitty, 2003
Acquired: Love Garden, Used, 2007
I dropped the needle and the opening piano chords “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” completely destroyed me. I'd forgotten how beautiful this record is. The song, at least the title, seems to be an incredibly appropriate soundtrack to my filling out of myriad job applications (to jobs that will no doubt pay me barely enough to get by). While Lawrence isn't as bad as Flint, jobs are few and far between. Anyway, this is an excellent record. I actually put this on a few days ago and was surprised, as I seem to have projected negative emotions onto it. I fell out with Sufjan after seeing him live in support of Illinois. The show was tossed off and sapped of all power, and I'm sure he was tired and exhausted from touring, but it sucked all the wind out of his songs. I've re-learned to love him though. His compositions are exactly the kind of compositions that critics talk about when they talk about “thoughtful compositions.” They often seem crowded but every element seems to fit and proves its purpose. He flirts with minimalism, or so I'm told, and I'll just say “it flirts with minimalism (but only because I can see that he's listened to that Steve Reich record I had). He's serious but playful, having fun with his home state while lamenting its decline. His songs contrast the natural beauty of the state bordered by four great lakes, but also the economic decline and pollution of its major cities. Contrast is almost always compelling, and this is no exception. In fact, this might even be better than Illinois, which now that I think of it has too many songs (and a b-sides disc full of MORE songs about Illinois). Despite many of them being great, that record lacks the focus that Michigan does. While that one creates a sort of narrative thread that's pretty outstanding, this one feels a little more cohesive, and rather than creating a narrative creates a unity of sound. The arrangements are all refreshing and diverse, featuring a blend of banjo and trumpet here, piano and lament there, and heaps of horns, woodwinds, strings and everything you might find in an orchestra. I remember there was a Sufjan bandwagon that followed behind Illinois, and once it got too crowded I jumped off. However, returning to these records, in particular Michigan, I'm falling in love with them all over again. There's less chaff here than on Illinois and though the high points aren't as high as the three best songs on that record, the whole record is pretty much made up of high points so I give it a slight edge. It's not quite as upbeat, but I like it that way. “Romulus” always, always, always kills me, and was the first Stevens song I ever discovered and it destroyed me just a little. It's a banjo opus. Yes, banjo opus. “Vito's Ordination Song” is still remains one of the better closing tracks of the 00s, showing elements of bands that would come to dominate the indie music scene. There's hints of Arcade Fire here, and that lush sort of chamber pop that took over in the middle part of the decade. There's also a picture of a wolverine on the back cover and a SONG about that wolverine on the D-side, which features B-sides. And this wolverine looks SO COOL. He looks like he's taking on the world, rising over a hill at dawn, ready to go gnaw on something.