Our introduction to Sufjan Steven’s Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State comes in the form of a progression of minor chords played on a piano. Almost cinematically, “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” evokes images of nature crippled by frosty decay. Michigan is entirely devoted to its namesake and while I’ve never been to Michigan, I have an idea of what it must be like—desolate and lonely, epic and vast, serene [I think you’re thinking of Montana – ed.]. These are the exact characteristics that blanket the album.
Stevens’ displays a gentle touch, delicately navigating through babbling rivers, grand forests and snowy hills with a sense of melancholy. His arrangements are understated, his voice rarely rising above a whisper. Acoustic guitars, bells, horns, and assorted vibraphones share space in the mix, creating a soft palate of tones for Stevens to indulge his brush in. It’s this decidedly fragile quiet that speaks the loudest, and when the end of “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” brings about an enveloping blizzard, it demands your attention. The album’s more upbeat moments, such as “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace,” roll along like the run-off of melting snow into a stream. Stevens evokes the hushed beauty of nature in his music in a way only Phil Elvrum has been able to do recently.
Michigan‘s songs tell of a place where our “Celebrities Uncensored” cameras wouldn’t be caught dead—none of the decadence of metropolitan life is found in the defeated story of “The Upper Peninsula,” only a fledgling economy that is terminating blue-collar workers by the masses. “I live in America, with a pair of Payless shoes.” America has neglected its own—the factory worker that lost his job and cannot support his family, the less-fortunate who are given next to nothing and have to work harder and longer just to break even. Sufjan Stevens gives voice to these people.
Michigan is refreshing—it speaks of a true cause like any good album does. Sufjan Stevens takes you through Michigan and shows you it all, both the good and the bad—the rolling forests, the babbling rivers, the frost-bitten roads, the desolate mill-towns, the dejected workers. For capturing a forgotten piece of America and trying to solve its woes through spreading awareness, Sufjan Stevens is already successful. That Michigan does it earnestly and effectively and manages to make its themes palpable only ensures its place as one of the most touching albums in recent indie history.