Michigan Turns 20

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Michigan Turns 20


The Sufjan Stevens catalog has no shortage of mind-bendingly proggy moments, many of them on the 2010 album The Age Of Adz, one of the most formidable works of auteurist excess of the 21st century. Yet my favorite of all of them comes during “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!),” one of the pieces on the album most explicitly influenced by Chicago post-rock, where a frenzy of bells, woodwinds, and strings creates the impression of traffic moving unceasingly across a grid. Cue a chord change, and Sufjan’s co-ed choir begins reciting the names of towns in Michigan before the bandleader echoes them in a dizzying call-and-response. “Wolverine, Wolverine… Wolverine.” “Saginaw, Saginaw… Saginaw.” Finally the inevitable: “Michigan, Michigan… Michigan.” There’s a filter on Stevens’ voice, the kind Damon Albarn uses to insert his vocals into the margins of his guest-heavy Gorillaz songs, or that Timbaland uses for his ad-libs. It’s the voice of a producer, not a frontman: a tiny voice emerging from the heart of the work. His voice is hushed, bosomy, slightly staid. He sounds like he’s using his voice as a vessel for ideas rather than emotions — that is, until he hits us with those shattering high notes on “Romulus.”

Michigan sounds for all the world like a small-town Christmas pageant directed by some kind of sober, analytical, wide-eyed choirboy genius bleeding his private obsessions and neuroses into the work: his mystical Christianity, his family trauma, his opinions about the state of the Rust Belt and solutions for its improvement. It isn’t confessional in the same way as Carrie & Lowell, but we get a glimpse into his personal history on “Romulus” as he describes his mother’s indifference to his grandfather’s death: “She smoked in her room and colored her hair/ I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her.” You imagine the townspeople in the audience shifting uncomfortably in their chairs as the spectacle abruptly turns personal.

Michigan tends to be most poignant at its most abstract, as on the heartbreaking closer “Vito’s Ordination Song,” in which Stevens sings in the voice of God and promises to guide a man through his life with such unconditional love and tenderness it’s liable to make the audience feel unworthy. But the integration of Michigan’s broader treatment of the Great Lakes State with Stevens’ personal concerns animates the entire album, and that’s just as true of his relationship with his faith and family as the sense of awe and fear that courses throughout the record. It’s the kind that comes from knowing you’ll never be able to completely explore, quantify, or understand your home. But by integrating his memories with these mysteries, Stevens came frighteningly close.

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