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Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State—9

 

Released: 2003

1) Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid 2) All Good Naysayers, Speak up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace  3) For the Windows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti  4) Say Yes! to Michigan 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) Vita's Ordination Song

 

Sufjan Stevens’s third solo album, entitled “Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State,” is the first in what has got to be one of the most ambitious projects ever started by a singer/songwriter.  Rumor has it that Stevens plans to record fifty different albums to represent all fifty of the United States.  I’m not sure if he’ll ever really complete that ridiculous project, but if the following forty-nine albums are even half as good as the first album in the cycle, you can bet I’ll be buying each of them. 

 

I’ve never set foot in Michigan, but this record pretty much sums up my upbringing.  It isn’t just a homage to Stevens’s home state…it tells the sad story of middle America: the industrial, unemployed, welfare, Payless, snowmobile, hunting, broken down, trailer park, woodsman, broken home, struggle of life in the real America.  Stevens amazingly plays twenty-one different instruments on the album, composes, produces and arranges every song heard and creates a true concept album.  The record is overflowing with sadness (even on the more upbeat tracks) and Stevens’s delicate voice only adds to the intimacy.       

 

It all starts with “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid),” which begins as a peaceful, pensive piano-based story song, subtly setting the mood for the entire record.  I’m not sure if it is Stevens’s voice, his delivery, the stark melody, the dreary trumpet section, or the dismal plight of the working class lyrics…but whatever it is, I am instantly submerged in this album from the opening number.  The actual city of Flint’s background is as sad and understated as the song, and that might be what actually entices me.  Flint isn’t too different from my hometown; not too different from most Americans really… The mood is brightened with “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace.”  The bouncy Charlie Brown piano and female background vocals are remarkably inviting, as are the dozens of other instrumental overlays Stevens throws at you, reminiscent of Stereolab. 

 

For the Windows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” is a gorgeous, banjo ballad, with poignant trumpets and emotional female background vocals.  It is slow, delicate, backwoodsy, and everything American roots music should be: a touch of tradition with a ton of sincerity.  Say Yes! To Michigan!” follows and this song sounds like something you sang on the bus on your way to summer camp…rhythmic, animated and charming, with a stick in your head melody.  The happiest sounding track on the album, it is easily a highlight.  The Upper Peninsula” crushes that happy feel though, with its dark, banjo-based blues.  While the previous tracks were dripping in gloom, this song has a much more sinister sound, but still maintains the dimness.  The creepy organ backdrop, atmospheric electric guitar coda, and haunting duet vocals produce the slightly off-putting vibe, and the lyrics brilliantly describe the life of a hard working trailer park, everyday, white distressed American. 

 

Tahquamenon Falls” is a two-minute mood piece featuring windpipes.  Though not even close to an actual song, it is interesting and strange, and the album wouldn’t be the same without it.  Holland” is another gentle, piano tearjerker.  Stevens’s voice is so fragile, it seems like he will slip away at any minute, and the repeated “Han, han, han, han” is more moving than most artists’ most captivating lyrics.  The next tune reminds me of the animated movie The Phantom Tollbooth.  Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” sounds like it is a soundtrack to that film…happy, bouncing, whimsical.  The most impressive song on the album, it is a stirring calling to Detroit: “Once a great place now a prison.”  This track is similar to the Flaming Lips “The Soft Bulletin” and just like that great album, it has about thirty different hooks and reasons to fall in love with it.  Romulus” is equally amazing, but for different reasons.  This story song deals with a mother who has uncaringly left her old life behind, and her kids struggling to accept life with only brief glimpses of her.  There must be millions of families like this in America, and mine is no different, which is why the words, the music…everything about this song breaks me down.  Absolutely brings me to tears. 

 

If the album ended there, it would be one of the greatest albums I have ever heard.  The remaining six tracks on the album do little to raise the bar and actually bring down the quality of the record slightly.  None of the tunes are bad, but they just don’t have the strength of the first half of the album.  Alanson, Crooked Rain” illustrates this point perfectly.  It is another windpipe instrumental.  Yeah, it’s under a minute long, but really isn’t one windpipe solo enough for an album?  Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie” is the exception of the last half of the album as it is a great little, almost gospel ballad with Stevens sharing lead vocals with three female background singers.  It is a swirling, melodic build up of a song that leads skillfully into another Phantom Tollbooth/Stereolab inspired extravaganza, “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon).”  This song is too long and can’t live up to the brilliant “Detroit…  There are still plenty of hooks and unusual instrument patterns, but overall it feels like a been there done that track.

 

Unfortunately, “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mockinaw?” has none of those hooks to save this nine-minute, sluggish, religious lament.  It isn’t a TERRIBLE song, but it drags a lot of the life out of the album.  The last three-minutes are just atmosphere and the tune is more than a little tedious.  The snail’s pace continues with “Redford (for Yia-Yia & Pappou).”  While this stirring piano instrumental is gorgeous, it can’t be properly enjoyed directly after the slowest tune on the record.  It belongs elsewhere.  The album closes with “Vito’s Ordination Song,” a charming lullaby from a father to his son.  It is a great, emotional way to leave the listener, and a beautiful song without a doubt, with a distinct funeral like feel, but it is over seven minutes long.                

 

The album is about twenty minutes too long, and really quite boring towards the end, but I don’t care.  There aren’t many songs that can cause you to think, to feel, to cry, and to sing along with, but Stevens made an entire album’s worth.  It is an all consuming, wonderful record and few can match its dreary, heartfelt mood.  Quite simply, this is a jaw-dropping masterpiece with an unusual sound, good lyrics, great songwriting, and you need to hear it.

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