Photo by David Greenwald
So I read Steven Thomas Erlewine’s article against Sufjan Stevens last night. I say “against” and not “about” because it’s the one where he rakes over the poor songwriter like so many autumn leaves. Had anybody else written the piece, it would certainly be a candidate for a Critical Backlash column, but Erlewine as usual writes with reason and validity. I agree with him on a number of points – Seven Swans is a one-sided album that pales in comparison to the bigger sound of his 50 States achievements, Illinois is more workmanlike exercise than unbounded artistry – but I disagree with him on the emotional resonance of songs such as “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” While Stevens’ songs can be overly similar or academic, even at his most dry, he’s capable of stabbing you in the chest.
More importantly, the article ignores one significant point: Illinois, despite its critical crowning and relative commercial success, is not Stevens’ best album. Far from it. If 2005 was the year Sufjan Stevens exploded, 2003 was the year he released his most profound artistic work: Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lakes State is a glorious mission statement for both the stylistic concerns he would go on to explore as well as the humanistic feelings he’s capable of interpreting and expressing.
Illinois is lengthy, overblown (imagine Stevens reading a list of the instruments he played on each track: “So on this one, I played the piano, three acoustic guitars, flute, saxophone, the triangle…”) and yes, mired in roll-calls of names, locations and events without any kind of overarching narrative aside from the album’s own pomp and circumstance. Which, if you ask Stevens himself, was the point – the pageantry of the songs. As the audience, though, we’re always acutely aware we’re hearing a performance, whereas great art is supposed to reach beyond that limitation. Michigan, Stevens’ third album and the birthplace of his current creative mode, is by contrast intensely personal and presumably less well-known than its midwestern cousin. In all the hubbub about Illinois, Michigan got lost, and this is a crime.
Michigan is Stevens’ home, in both a literal and figurative sense. It plays with his orchestra-size folk arrangements, exploring the possibilities of scope without allowing overdubs for their own sake – see the glorious “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!” with its skipping-stone drum fills and vaguely jazzy composition ascend into a kind of bleary-eyed joy, or the undreamt-of-even-by-Belle & Sebastian harmonies that close the album on “Vito’s Ordination Song.” He does the quiet acoustic thing equally well, using subtlety in itself as the featured instrument of “Romulus,” and nothing in his catalog compares with the celestial beauty of “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou).” The difference is here, when Stevens calls for Detroit to lift its head, he means it – he’s a Michigan native, and these are songs of personal experience and shared memory, not ones that required reading Saul Bellow. Not that people shouldn’t read Saul Bellow, but the point is that this is an emotionally charged album, one with real lives on the line and music to match.
In short (ironically enough, considering the lack of brevity of Stevens’ albums and this very article), Michigan is one of the finest albums of our time, a somber rumination on a people weathered and beaten by forces beyond their control. Unlike Stevens’ later work, this album tells a single story: his own. What could be more powerful than that?
(Buy for a $10 pittance from Asthmatic Kitty Records)
The Canon, Examined is a continuing series spotlighting the finest records to ever slip through the cracks. Previously: Dave Matthews Band / Grant-Lee Phillips / Beachwood Sparks / Natalie Imbruglia / Lullaby For The Working Class