When it comes to sprawling, conceptual folk-pop albums, nobody does it with more dazzling follow-through than Sufjan Stevens. The New York singer-songwriter has already shown great audacity, having planned a 50-album homage to the United States of America, with one disc being devoted to each state. Furthermore, he has a band called The Michigan Militia, consisting of a Polyphonic Spree-worthy number of members wearing Boy Scout uniforms in their press photo. And he’s proven himself to be just about the most innovative musician and songwriter in indie rock today, having written and played everything (save for some horns) on Greetings from Michigan, a paean to the state in which he was born. Though he currently resides in Brooklyn, biographically it makes an ideal choice to begin this lengthy project.
The album opens with “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid),” a first-person narration of the economic hardships faced in said town, as also seen in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. Stevens’ gentle voice is accompanied by spare use of piano and trumpet on this subdued, though somber opening track. Things pick up immediately, though, on “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up!” one of about 4 Stereolab-like tracks, built on jazzy structures and complex time signatures.
“For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fathers in Ypsilanti” is a gorgeous, heartbreaking track that merely becomes more awe-inspiring as it progresses. Some bare banjo riffs begin the song, before Stevens’ soothing voice comes in at the verse. Everything flows smoothly until a piano and female voice enter the mix, as Stevens sings “I’ll do anything for you,” sounding his most desperate and emotionally affected. The harmonizing of all parties involved forms an emotional tidal wave that consumes even the most stone-faced of listeners.
After the tears have been wiped away, “Say Yes! To Michigan” lightens the mood before transitioning into “The Upper Peninsula,” which ends with the only guitar solo on the album (and a distorted and dissonant one at that). “Tahquamenon Falls” is one of two Philip Glass-like minimalist pieces played on glockenspiel and vibraphone, adding some abstract textures to the otherwise emotionally-charged album.
The album centerpiece, “Detroit! Lift Your Weary Head!” is where Stevens shows off just how jaw-dropping his elaborate arrangements can be. Another one of Stevens’ jazz-influenced tunes, “Detroit” is built on a 9/8 time signature. A horn section plays the lead before Stevens’ verse begins. Again, Stevens is joined by back up singers chanting words associated with the state, like “Industry! Industry!” and “Saginaw! Saginaw!.” If Sufjan isn’t opposed to commercialization of his music, he might be wise to consider selling use of this song to the Michigan tourist bureau.
Greetings from Michigan is unlike any album to come before it, if only because its depth and thematic consistency is matched by its incredible sonic expanse. Never before has a geographical concept album, or concept legacy for that matter, been so musically inspiring as it is cohesive. And there’s still 49 to go.
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