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.