10 years ago, on his 28th birthday, Sufjan Stevens released what was one of his most personal, emotional, and important albums. An ambitious and constantly intriguing collection of 15 songs with real autobiographical and political undertones.
Michigan was the beginning of his audacious (and ultimately short-lived) ‘50 State Project’, and encompassed a wide range of topics surrounding places, stories, and opinions of his home state, but its true brilliance lies in an inherent ability to connect with the listener, despite a possible lack of knowledge of the area and backstories.
The album addresses a wide range of issues, including unemployment, homelessness, and absent parents, topics that are still as relevant today, a decade later, as they were when it was released.
Michigan was the first moment in Stevens career when his now signature combination of indie-pop and folk stylings backed by occasional orchestral arrangements, came together and formed a coherent whole, and would become the driving force, and foundation behind, the rest of his career as well as the many other artists he inspired.
Having released two albums prior to Michigan – A Sun Came in 2000, and Enjoy Your Rabbit the following year – it was his third album that was his first real leap as a creative artist, an album entirely composed of memories and nostalgia for his home state, as well as despair at its current condition.
Released on his own Asthmatic Kitty record label, was the album that first made Stevens a house-hold name amongst independent music, helped in part by being rated by Pitchfork as the third best album of 2003. [do action=”pullquote”]Michigan was the first moment in Stevens career when his now signature combination of indie-pop and folk stylings backed by occasional orchestral arrangements, came together.[/do]
In an interview with the website, the Detroit-born singer-songwriter stated that “Michigan is based on memory, so it’s more introverted and melancholy…that’s what a whole lot of [it] is about, this kind of internal and emotional tension between living and being in a place, and then leaving it and looking back, and having a different kind of experience with the memories of that place.”
From the moment when Stevens’ voice falters while singing “Even if I die alone” on album-opener ‘Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)’ it’s apparent that this is going to be a very, very special album, an emotional journey that immediately draws you in.
‘Flint’ is the first of many songs to touch on the subject of unemployment and a loss of hope, a melancholic theme that pervades the album, and sends a strong message to the listener.
Michigan, and specifically Stevens’ hometown of Detroit, suffered greatly from deindustrialization and the decline of the automotive industry in America, and this issue is raised on multiple occasions.
Flint, a city 66 miles from Detroit, was the birthplace of General Motors, but following the company’s down-scaling and deindustrialization, it accrued over $30 million in debt by 2002.
In Sufjan’s ‘Flint’, the song’s narrator details the guilt felt about not having job, about pretending to ‘try’ and ‘cry’. The backstory behind it makes the line “Since the first of June / Lost my job / And lost my room” even more sorrowful, but as with the whole album, it’s not necessary in order for the song to have a true emotional impact.
Throughout its some 66 minutes, Stevens depicts the personal, individual impact of economic hardship and widespread unemployment, and this is perhaps even more important and relevant in the desperate economic climate of today.
The narrator on ‘The Upper Peninsula’ now lives in a “trailer home” and has lost his family as a result of unemployment and alcoholism, seeing his wife at a K-Mart; they now “live apart.” [do action=”pullquote-2″]”Michigan is based on memory, so it’s more introverted and melancholy.” – Sufjan Stevens[/do]
Similarly to the town of Flint, the Upper Peninsula has been desecrated by high levels of unemployment and growing issues with alcoholism, and the final, intimately personal lines of “I lost my mind / I lost my life / I lost my job / I lost my wife” conveys the brutally harsh realities of these lower-class struggles, and in taking on a personally narration, making a highly important statement and impact on the listener.
Stevens is at his most political when despairing at the current state of his home city on ‘Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!’, a near eight-and-a-half minute epic where he describes the town as “Once a great place, now a prison”, making a strong comment on the urbanization and commercialization of the Motor City and Western society as a whole.
The sprawling and intriguing amalgamation of genres is one of the most upbeat moments, but also lyrically one of the darkest and includes repetitive choruses sung in unison and an eclectic instrumental breakdown.
This statement is carried over on ‘All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace’, where Stevens laments that “All we praise is all we want in commerce / All we praise is parties, foreign commerce”, while also describing his hopes for improvement and working together for something worthwhile.
The marching band-type feelings evoked by the song complement the ultimately uplifting message, with lines such as “Forget loss and perfect advocation / If it drops or stays in convocation” becoming engrained in your head.
Stevens utilizes genuine, honest characters, telling their heart-achingly real stories in order to make a strong political message, and in doing so, makes a real emotional connection with the audience. But for the everyday listener, much of the song’s storytelling qualities don’t have to be about the economic woes of a town near Detroit, but could be about general hopelessness, guilt, and putting on a brave face.