Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lake State (Deluxe Version)
Though both offer the bounty of a place’s beauty, there’s a profound difference between a tourism pamphlet and a postcard. With the former, everything is always copacetic, advertising a utopia that awaits you and your money. But the postcard can transmit both majesty and minutiae—honest, first-person impressions from a tourist back to the place and people they call home. And despite its bucolic cover, Sufjan Stevens’ breakthrough album Michigan is essentially a series of postcards—recollections of his time in the Great Lake State, where he was born and raised. Yes, there are lovely images here: of waterfalls and winding rivers, and of a city so wondrous, it seems like the Industrial Revolution’s very apex. But those images are bound to complicated memories—to the little tragedies or miracles of Stevens’ youth. The album is less a portrait of Michigan than it is a movie about his life spent there. Before Michigan arrived in 2003, Stevens was a shy multi-instrumentalist working at the surprisingly busy intersection of Christian music and indie rock. He’d made a few curious records, and had been running Asthmatic Kitty, a small label for him and his friends. But as Michigan sprang from plaintive ballads to grandiose pop, and from 20th-century composition to pensive folk songs, the audacious album made it clear the soft-voiced former Michigander was a budding visionary. Other musicians of his generation may have been flirting with this ornate instrumentation, but Stevens was slowly mastering it. Still, these 15 songs are much more than compositional exercises. Stevens digs into the economic anxieties not only of the state, but also his very family, admitting his own embarrassment about his mother’s dying car (no small tragedy, given that, in Michigan, new cars represent financial lifeblood). He looks at Detroit’s neglected grandeur with sadness and hope, then turns toward the isolation of the Upper Peninsula with empathy and tenderness. “Holland” is an exquisite postcard about a teen fling, while “Sleeping Bear, Sault St. Marie” captures the thrill of encountering natural wonders so vast, they make you reckon with your own smallness. Very few songwriters had ever cast such intimacy at such a grand scale, a magnetizing paradox that instantly put Michigan—and Stevens himself—at the forefront of indie rock’s new vanguard.