Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State

Before Michigan, Sufjan Stevens was a footnote within a curiosity. In 2003, the Michigan-raised Brooklyn transplant was best known as part of the entourage surrounding Daniel Smith’s off-kilter Christian rock collective Danielson Famile, a group whose costumed insanity presaged the drama club-meets-cheerleading squad shtick that later defined Sufjan’s live show. He’d already released two albums before 2003, but barely anybody heard them. Even those who did encounter 2000’s A Sun Came and 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit probably were not prepared for the exquisite deluge Sufjan released 10 years ago today. His widescreen love letter to his home state was such a momentous leap forward that a decade later he still hasn’t surpassed it — not with the stark spiritual meditation Seven Swans, not with the brilliant but cartoonishly grandiose Illinois, and not with the striking digital freakout The Age Of Adz. Sufjan has produced a wealth of fascinating, deeply affecting (and sometimes deeply affected) music over the years, but none of it beats the record that literally and figuratively put him on the map.

Technically, it’s called Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State, which is appropriate given how long-winded the entire enterprise is. The tracklist encompasses 15 songs, 66 minutes, and 86 words. Yet despite its proclivity toward lengthy song titles — looking at you, “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Muskegon)” — Michigan is not an exceptionally verbose record. More often than not, the lyrics are sharp and concise, drawing portraits of divine encounters and downcast-but-dignified strivers in a few smart flashes of detail. The album is grounded in the kind of earthbound struggle fellow Michigan native Michael Moore documented in Roger & Me; in “The Upper Peninsula,” when Sufjan sings “I’ve seen my wife at the Kmart/ In strange ideas, we live apart,” all warm-blooded human hearts bottom out. But he just as frequently casts his gaze heavenward, a psalmist wrestling his way to the other side of despair. He envisions a God in control despite apparent long odds, one who responds to each character’s doubt and despondency with warm assurance. In the closing “Vito’s Ordination Song,” he promises, “I always knew you in your mother’s arms/ I have called your name” before concluding, “Rest in my arms/ Sleep in my bed/ There’s a design/ To all I did and said.” In “For the Widows in Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti,” the message is simpler: “I’d do anything for you” becomes “I did everything for you.”

Maybe it’s just Laura Normandin’s cover art guiding my imagination, but the whole album sounds like snow is drifting through it. Why it was released in the summer I’ll never understand. It plays like a movie musical or an anthology of one-act plays, vacillating between two basic types connected by moody interludes. Sometimes the view is panoramic, with Sufjan constructing mini-symphonies inspired by Michigan’s natural splendor and the bustle of city life. The likes of “Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!” and “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” are lush orchestral suites that draw on jazzy Chicago post-rock but could just as easily be accompanied by choreography out of Disney or Dr. Seuss. Other times Michigan zooms from that bird’s-eye view to extreme close-ups, depicting human struggle in hushed ballads so intimate they practically cuddle with you. Those quieter moments are so sparse that each instrument cuts through the silence, be it the downtrodden piano that introduces “Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid),” the strummed banjo that undergirds “Ypsilanti” or the narrator’s fragile falsetto, among the most distinct voices to scrape the heavens since Thom Yorke hit the scene a decade prior.

This was revelatory stuff for an indie rock record, and it made a huge impression. In his writeup of Coliseum’s Sister Faith, Tom described the genre’s orchestral softening: “As late as a decade ago, when the Louisville trio Coliseum formed, the term ‘indie’ evoked images of Pretty Girls Make Graves or Blood Brothers as much as, I don’t know, Beulah, and it was still vaguely novel to hear a flugelhorn on a Sub Pop record.” Nowadays, aggressive guitar bands like Coliseum are considered punk or metal because indie rock is the kind of genre where neoclassical whiz kid Nico Muhly contributes string arrangements to seemingly every major record, where Régine Chassagne passionately rocks the accordion, where Bon Iver channels Richard Marx unironically. Michigan’s flurry of glockenspiels, oboes, trombones, and, yes, banjos had a lot to do with that. The record occasionally skronks and intermittently thumps, but for somebody whose name means “comes with a sword” (not unlike his Lord and Savior), the Sufjan of Michigan is one meek motherfucker.

Speaking of Jesus Christ: I never figured the Christian rock record that crossed over to an indie rock audience would be one that sounds so much like a church Christmas pageant. For those of us believers who came to disdain much of the CCM we grew up on, this record was so refreshing. For once, here was a true original, not just a target-marketed copycat. Here was a genuine talent, not a middling also-ran touted among the faithful because no better alternative could be found. Here was a guy who could earnestly pour out his heart to God without sounding like a desperately trite worship leader. (OK, he did get a little breathy sometimes.) People outside the Christian rock ghetto took Michigan seriously — as they should — and not because Sufjan toned down his faith to court a wider audience like so many youth group favorites desperate for a hit (’sup, Switchfoot?), but because those beliefs inspired such deeply human music. He sang frankly and fearlessly about his spiritual life, not prosthelytizing but also not compromising. Ten years later, Michigan’s tales of grappling with real-life problems still resonate whether you agree with Sufjan’s solutions or not. Amen to that.

Comments (49)
  1. Oh sweet nostalgia, welcome back!

  2. Michigan < Illinois, Seven Swans, Age Of Adz

    Is that a controversial opinion?

    • Michigan = Illinois = Seven Swans = Age of Adz = All Delighted People.
      Is that a controversial opinion?

    • Michigan feels less cohesive than those albums at times, and the songs definitely could have benefited from Illinois’ level of production. But…. no, I can’t say it’s worse than those other three albums.

      • Really? I find Illinois and Age of Adz to be far less cohesive. Lyrically, Michigan all seems to be about varying locales and having been raised in Michigan I can say that he seems to be pretty spot on. Illinois is good, but to me it’s more of a smorgasbord of themes ranging from serial killers to UFOs. I wasn’t a fan of Age of Adz, so I didn’t really listen to it enough to give my opinion on that one. I personally think Michigan is his strongest work though.

    • I like it better than Seven Swans and Age of Adz, but Illinois is a tuff one to beat.

    • I’ve been a huge (huge!) Sufjan fan since day one, and I honestly think I”m the only person out there that finds Illinois to be the weakest of his albums by far. The songwriting is so contrived / ham-fisted / awkward. It’s hard for me to even listen to that album.

      Michigan is my favorite, just the raw emotion of it all, it’s such a genuine / likable album. It established the sound. It makes Illinois sound like a bad retread. I guess a lot of it probably has to do with when you first started listening to Sufjan. It seems in general the artist’s album you start with always ends up sounding the strongest to you.

      Seven Swans is mostly great, Age of Adz / the accompanying EP’s have some great tracks as well.

      Long story short,

      Michigan > Age of Az > Seven Swans >>>>>>>>>>> Illinois

      • Really? I think you might be right…Not sure I’ve met anyone, Sufjan fan or no, that dislikes the album to the extent you just described.

  3. This album makes me so sentimental, probably more than any other album. “Holland” always brings me back to high school summers at my girlfriend’s parents’ cabin in Michigan. It’s a beautiful song. I can’t believe this album is 10 years old. When Illinois turns 10 in a couple years I’m gonna have a pretty rough time haha.

    • I grew up in Michigan and moved to California about a year and a half ago. Since I moved I almost can’t get through listening to Michigan because I get too homesick! My profile pick above is me at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

      Nostalgia aside, I do tend to reach for Illinois more often. I really want to like Michigan more but you can’t beat songs like “Casimir Pulaski”, “Chicago”, “Predatory Wasp of the Pallisades”… et al.

  4. I guess I’ve always considered Illinois to be his crowning achievement, probably in equal parts due to it’s huge scope, Illinois being my home state, the unbelievable songs, and because it was my introduction to Sufjan. However, I love Michigan pretty fiercely and with time and perspective, who knows-maybe I could begin to see it as his best. I consider Michigan to be my quintessential “winter album”, listening to it on cold, endless winter nights, driving in a car that hasn’t yet heated up and whose windshield is frosting over on the inside and the outside. An album that brings me back to a very specific and special time in my life, it makes me feel nostalgic and wistful like few others.

  5. A beautifully-written retrospective. I was born and raised in the Mitten, but was going to college in Indiana when “Michigan” came out. My best friend gave me this album when I was home on break and I listened to it on my road trip back down. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before — it actually made me homesick. I had such a connection to this album and his subsequent work that when I got a chance to meet Sufjan (years later), I got insanely nervous and totally choked.

  6. Great write up! I sure do enjoy this album. Not better than Illinois (not by a long shot actually) but it’s still pure gold. Especially “All Good Naysayers”

  7. Definitely agree with this being greater than his other efforts. This album arrests me as soon as the piano begins in “Flint” Glad to know someone else agrees with me.

    • Yeah, man. I feel like the consensus is “Illinois” is his best, but compared to this record that one seems overwrought and overstuffed to me. This one is long and labored-over too, but it breathes. It’s not so self-consciously ornate.

    • I have to agree. This one has a lot more sentimental value to me and that’s what really makes it better for me.

  8. “Greeting from Michigan” had a profound effect on me being a still a kid when I heard it. I remember hearing it on the road in the deep woods of where I grew up, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan .My older brother Brian would take a visit back home and expose me to a whole new world of music every time he came back. For a young kid wanting to do music in a place where no one believes its even possible, Sufjan made music for me that felt like it really did come from my backyard world and it became one of the soundtracks to my awkward years. I became a musician partly do to Greetings. It does bother me he doesn’t make more music now days. Thanks for writing this article, I have been loving the revisiting of the old greats

  9. I was actually born in Holland, MI and I grew up for the my first ten years in a little town just south of it called Hamilton. Sufjan was actually living in Holland at that time and was playing in a band called Marzuki with some of my sister’s friends. It’s pretty fucking crazy how small the world is.

    But yeah, this album reminds me of Michigan so much. Every time I hear it the memories of long winters, snow-capped tree and Lake Michigan being frozen over. Each song seems to bring about an overwhelming sense of nostalgia towards me. Friends faces I remember, but not their names. Riding bikes about half a mile behind my house in this huge sand dune/gravel pit thing. The beginning of fall when Michigan State football games were starting up, and all the leaves on the trees that surrounded my house were changing colors.

    Every time I listen to this album its an experience for me. Filled with bouts of sadness, and happiness throughout the whole thing. Man, it really brings me back, and I suddenly want to be there right now.

    • Dude, my family lives in Hamilton, and I think I know the gravel pit you’re talking about!

      If i tallied the times I’ve played Michigan vs. Illinois, it’d probably be Illinois, no contest, but Michigan does feel so much more nostalgic and authentic. Like someone else mentioned, the song “Holland” means so immensely much to me, because it quite literally provided the soundtrack for taking a nap on the shore of Lake Michigan at the end of my RA year at college with the rest of my staff (“things will end before they start”). However Illinois compared in acclaim, landmark quality, or whatever, this album is still an absolute masterpiece.

  10. “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)” levels me every. single. time.

    If you haven’t teared up to that song, you may need to check your heart for a pulse.

  11. Beautifully written but I am surprised you didn’t mention how the title and the artwork are both a rather obvious homage to Bruce Springsteen first record: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J..

  12. Still waitin on over half the US, Sufjohn!

  13. Sleeping Bear, Sault St. Marie is hands down my favorite Sufjan Stevens track.

  14. “Christian” music. As soon as one uses the term “Christian” as an adjective, it’s just a marketing term. That being said, just as with any other genre, there is fantastic, amazing and beautiful music out there, you just have to find it.

    Amen.

    • I never saw Sufjan as “Christian music”. It’s just music made by a person for whom Christianity is a central part of his life. Naturally his music is going to reflect that. That’s what makes Sufjan good and most other “Christian music” (by which I mean modern Christian pop) I’ve heard total crap. He isn’t marketing a value system/religion to anyone, he is writing intensely personal music. Anyone can relate to that, only the converted can relate to “Christian music”.

  15. sorry i thought those would be just links if i posted URLs. I am a terrible person

  16. I love both albums, but I think that Illinois is slightly better. Sufjan realized his full potential on that album. While Michigan was more reserved, Illionois aimed for being more bombastic. He went full force with the instrumentation and arrangements. Some people dislike that direction, but I think it showcased his creativity. However, I still enjoy Michigan for its subtlety and grace. “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” is one of my favorite songs. Additionally, in all of Sufjan’s records, he aims to deliver spirituality that’s relatable and not preachy. Overall, I think he’s a terrific artist.

    http://www.seraphmountain.com

  17. “Detroit, lift up your weary head” was my first introduction to Sufjan. Illinois really got me hooked, but Michigan was the first Sufjan I heard and loved.

    On a roadtrip through Michigan a friend and I played “Vito’s Ordination Song” on repeat for an hour while everyone else in the car slept. That song still haunts me, but in a good way.

  18. I also love Wolverine from the bonus track version – it’s crazy to think he had so many great songs there wasn’t even room to fit it on the album.

  19. does anyone else have a hard time recapturing the magic that was once in the track redbull…err…i mean redford?

    • Because it was used in the Red Bull ad? Personally I thought it was pretty great. I always love their commercials. In a way they’re kind of inspiring.

  20. Romulus is one of the most incredible, haunting songs i’ve ever heard, definite favorite from that album, and such a nostalgia kick to trips to the UP and pickerel lake with my family.

  21. Seven Swans is my favorite, though I’d say there are performances on some of the Christmas albums that blow away anything else he’s done. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing comes to mind. But anyway, must we really do a ten year anniversary notice for every marginally noteworthy album that rolls around? The anniversary of Raveonettes’ Chain Gang of Love is next month, isn’t it?

  22. I don’t think anything Sufjan has done is anything less than brilliant.

    Even “Super Sexy Woman” ;)

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