catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 8 :: 2004.04.09 — 2004.04.22


Experiencing Michigan

Just for fun, I’m not going to review Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State in the broad sense, by which I mean the recording that was released for purchase by the public at large. I’m just reviewing my copy. But before we begin that strange exercise, here are three facts about the album (in the broad sense):

  1. Greetings from Michigan is both a very personal, small album and a vast homage to Sufjan Stevens’ home state.
  2. It is Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yahn) Steven’s third album, preceded by A Sun Came (1999) and Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001). His fourth and latest release is Seven Swans (2004).
  3. Among the instruments used in the recording are trumpet, glockenspiel, and banjo.

Okay now, back to my copy. Yes, it’s probably true that when played, my copy sounds remarkably similar to most, if not all, of the other copies of this recording that exist. And the cover art on my CD, featuring a map of the state of Michigan and some kitschy illustrations of animals, is also probably the same as everyone else’s. But I’ve dropped mine a couple times and there’s a chip in the jewel case. And the paper that the album’s lyrics and liner notes are printed on has a crease in it because a few days ago I was reading the lyrics and got up to get some orange juice and when I came back I accidentally sat on it (the paper). The crease goes right through these lyrics:

I live in America with a pair of Payless shoes / The Upper Peninsula and the television news / I’ve seen my wife at the K-mart / In strange ideas, we live apart

and also:

Oh God, hold me now / Oh Lord, hold me now / There’s no other man who could raise the dead / So do what you can to anoint my head

That is meaningful to me. That makes my experience of the album unique. My copy of the album, which so far has only been heard by me, comes with its own scratches, chips, and creases, as well as the experiences, opinions, and ideas that I impose upon it.

For example, you may not have heard John Schaefer from NPR’s afternoon music program, Soundcheck, talk about Sufjan Stevens and his idea about making 50 albums in 50 years (one for each state in the USA). And you probably didn’t read all the same album reviews as I did before hearing the music for the first time. And if you own the album (or plan to own it) you probably didn’t buy (or will not have bought) your copy at Southpaw in Park Slope, Brooklyn, after hearing Sufjan Stevens and his fellow musicians, who were all dressed as “swans” incidentally (this consisted of jeans and white t-shirts with a few white feathers glued to the shoulders), perform several of the achingly beautiful songs on Michigan live and in person, causing you to contemplate how such an unassuming singer-songwriter could hold the undivided attention of three-hundred Brooklyn hipsters for a whole hour. Seriously, the crowd was nearly completely still and silent in what might be considered reverence for the music, save for the wild applause and cheering after each number. They might as well have closed the bar; it was wild. But maybe, like me, you’re a little skeptical about the merits of CCM (Christian Contemporary Music), and you bring that skepticism to the table when encountering any music for the first time. (It should be noted that Sufjan Stevens’ music is not really CCM, though it is certainly contemporary and could definitely be considered Christian, if you believe that there is such a thing as Christian music—which I do). Maybe you think that by identifying yourself as a fan of certain types of music, people will think of you in a certain way. Or maybe not. But stuff like this, that seems peripheral to the music, is also integral to the experience of the music. It’s what makes us feel so passionately about certain records, and that the music we love somehow belongs to us.

I’ve found listening to my copy of Greetings from Michigan to be an enjoyable and profoundly moving experience. It seems to bring on a sort of joyful and meditative attitude and opens me up to curiously meaningful discoveries, like the one of the crease through the words I liked. The lyrics are nostalgic, mournful, jubilant, and mysterious—sometimes all at the same time.

I’m deliberately not discussing the music itself that is on my album, because I’m afraid discussing the music will only encourage premature judgements on the part of those lucky souls who have not yet heard the record and may yet get to experience it for the first time. I mean, if I told you that it was death metal (it’s not), but that it was also the best music in the world (a claim too subjective for me to make here) some of you still probably wouldn’t be interested in it because of preconceived notions about death metal. And anyway, Stevens’ music is too genre-defying to make descriptions of it of any practical use. I will say this: by writing these songs to be recorded, performed in various places all over the world, and enjoyed by all kinds of people, I think Sufjan Stevens has done a good, good thing.

The best I can hope for is that you will buy your very own copy of Michigan and bring your own experiences and ideas to the table when you hear it—and that you will be as blessed by it, as I have been.

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