Kiefer’s Music Mondays: Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Michigan’

Sufjan cut no corners on the first (and second to last) installment of his 50 States Project.

Let’s get two things out in the open this Kiefer’s Music Monday: 1) Sufjan Stevens is a national treasure, whether you like him or not. 2) Not even Sufjan Stevens knows what he’s is talking about sometimes, and that’s okay.

Announced as the first album of Sufjan’s “Fifty States Project”—in which he planned to create a tribute album to every state in the Union—2003’s Michigan (also known as Sufjan Stevens Presents Greetings From Michigan The Great Lake State) is an underrated ode to the singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/maniacal genius’ home state. Even though the project was ditched (debatably) with 48 states to go, one thing is certain: we got a lot of joy, wonder, humor, love, art and most importantly REAL MUSIC from it.

In true Sufjan style, 1/25 of the project does not imply any shortness in method when it comes to Michigan. Spanning 20 songs (with names like “Oh God, Where Are You Now? In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?”) over 65 minutes, the only arguments you could have in opposition is that the album is too long, or even too short for that matter!

Sufjan is a mastermind when it comes to concept albums, and you can tell that he puts his whole entity into his art. Songs like “Flint (For The Unemployed and Underpaid)” and “For The Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” show such connectedness with his subjects. “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” and “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!” are profoundly insightful.

“Vito’s Ordination Song” is noteworthy for its potentially profitable mainstream style without any embellishment or urge to be more, while “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” even became the subject of another concept album: The Roots’ 2011 effort, Undun.

My favorite track is “Romulus,” a beautiful, golden-gilded track about runaway moms, VCR players and the grim nostalgia of growing up. The song is so exuberantly deep and full of lore: Romulus is a town in Michigan, and the home of the character whose mother has left him. In mythology, meanwhile, Romulus is one of the motherless twins who were raised by a wolf and went on to found the Roman empire. It bleeds irony and passion from its title alone!

That’s what makes Sufjan Stevens the real deal; a Michelangelo in his art form. He see’s the big picture in his mind, and manifests it so beautifully that it moves your soul in euphoric ways.

This album is such a lovingly-labored over collection of songs, it only makes sense that it presents itself the same way visually. With hand-painted artwork by Martha Stewart Living‘s Laura Normandin, the 2-LP vinyl edition opens like a greeting card from Michigan, with a map on the state inside, and a lengthy note from the “author” on the back. Even the records themselves feature fun painted state wildlife and cool slogans hand-etched on the inside of the vinyl.

The time and effort was already shown in the music, but it wouldn’t be Sufjan if it didn’t really bring the point home with the vessel.

Listen to: “Romulus,” “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!),” and “Flint (For The Unemployed and Underpaid)”