Tuesday, January 06, 2004


Sufjan Stevens
Greetings From Michigan
(Asthmatic Kitty Records)

Many artists have tried to capture the essence of a place or a locale, whether it’s a state, an island or a diner. Bon Jovi released "New Jersey" which was about Tina and her economic concerns, love and it’s accompanying bad name, and laying your hands on me or anyone else you may want to lay your hands on--but it never really grasped the "essence" of the Garden State. The album was too flashy, too fast-paced, too country (two cowboy-themed songs) for a place that is the proverbial butt of all state jokes. Billy Joel sang about his state of mind in New York but it was too melancholic, too serene to grasp the hustle and the anxiety of making it in the big city. The Beach Boys crooned about Kokomo but in the end, it came off sounding like a retirement village in Florida. Yes, they spoke of palm trees and the threateningly bright sun but the overall sentiment felt cheesy and artificial.

Sufjan Stevens is from Michigan. There is absolutely no doubt about that because on "Greetings from Michigan," his third album, he has convincingly transported me there. While listening to the instrumental track, "Redford," I understand what it is like to have been laid off from a job in the automotive industry. I look out of the window and see the falling snow with the grayish backdrop of a bleak American sky. I am full of worry and doubt about the future, my children, where my next paycheck will come in from. Like a Michael Moore film without the personal agenda, Sufjan captures the wondrous duplicity of raising a family in the Bush-era, the fear and simultaneous beauty of the unknown. The music itself is also the perfect match for his lyrics of sincerity and desperation. Sufjan excels as the Excellently Drawn Boy in a year when the original (Badly Drawn Boy, aka Damon Gough) failed us miserably with his shlocky "Have You Fed the Fish?" Each song is a gentle embrace on the ears accompanied with xylophones, oboes, glockenspiels, trombones and all other imaginative instruments. Moreover, his honey tea voice is so pleasant and poignant that despite the heavy context of "Michigan," it avoids being depressing and saddening. It makes this trip to the Great Lake State blissful and serene; considering this is the frat capitol of America, that’s no small feat.

Sufjan has ambitiously stated that he wants to make an album per state, creating mini-masterpieces for each of our 50 stars. And while I have never traveled cross-country, I can honestly say that I will gladly make the trip with him when he does, one glorious album at a time.


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