All Good Thoughts In Spite of Righteousness:
Sufjan Stevens and the Emergence of An American Original
By John Lane

There has been a dearth of American Originals for many years in terms of solo musical artistry. Of recent times, Jim O'Rourke has come close. But with his foray into Sonic Youth (who needs each other more?), one's reminded me of John Lennon's lyric, "You're looking for oblivion/with one eye on the Hall of Fame." Can you have it both ways? Time will tell.

For the time being, however, the emergence of Sufjan Stevens' third effort "Greetings From Michigan" (Asthmatic Kitty) allays any fears about a lack of genuine efforts in this country. The last American Original of this ilk was Van Dyke Parks, with his 1968 ground-breaking "Song Cycle". And like Parks' debut, this disc also has an inherently literary quality about it -- a work so profuse in its depth and soulfulness, that it doesn't merely turn its back on whatever current 'music scene' is occurring, but invents a wholly unique landscape. Yes, this is a work about 'Michigan' but it's a work that expresses/portrays a domain in the same sense that Andrew Wyeth's "Christina 's World" was about rural Maine...and in the process became something universally expressed and identifiable. We need not have set one foot in Michigan to feel the presence of landscape and the bottled emotions emanating from those places within that state, if the songwriter-as-narrator is capable; fortunately, Stevens is.

For sure, the sounds from this disc invite comparison. Critics have already been quick to blurt out Nick Drake, Jim O'Rourke, and Stereolab. It seems that anyone who sings softly and invites deft female harmonies as back-up will instantly garner a tag. But make no mistake, Sufjan Stevens is his own man, and this work is its own creation not lazily propped up by influence.

The songs bear such weighty titles as "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!" and "Oh, God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)", and I think, not for some pretentious reasons where the prose has to be given a steroid boost. There's a demand -- gentle, though it may be -- for the listener's ear. For this CD, on some level, asks and answers the question in the same series of breaths: is it possible to be spiritual and God-seeking, while at the same time rooted in self-doubt, misery, and short-sightedness? The answer, one gathers, is a resounding 'yes', as the characters in Stevens' landscape are all-too-human. Take the storyline in "The Upper Peninsula" as displayed in the first verse:

"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."
One critic mistakenly identified some sort of smirking irony that just isn't there. Stevens-as-omniscient narrator is compassionate, and decries the fact that people can live these lives of acquiring-things and taking-in-the-news and shopping -- these universally common experiences -- and yet be so alienated from those we supposedly love and know best.

Peppered amidst this collage are a couple pieces of musique concrete -- "Tahquamenon Falls" and "Alonson, Crooked River" which at first blush sound like wind chimes or glockenspiel tinkering, seemingly innocuous. But I compare these sounds to standing in a snow-covered terrain, at the edge of Stevens' industrial hell, and drawing in icy, short breaths.

There are a myriad of little see-saw balancing acts here. The choked doubt of "Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)" as expressed so succinctly ("Since the 1st of June, lost my job and lost my room/ I pretend to cry, even if I cried alone") is juxtaposed against the gentle shuffle lullabye sound of "Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie" which is even augmented with the sound of a nighttime cricket. The personal shame and embarrassment of a deteriorating relative ("Romulus") is thrown into greater relief against the backdrop of shame expressed about a deteriorating city ("Oh, Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Restore! Rebuild! Reconsider!)").

The ace in Stevens' deck is ultimately his melodic sense, as every sad storyline is gilded with a redemptive sound. When he sings, "From the trembling walls. It's a great idea!/Everything you want. It's a great idea!", there is the mixture of mocking a city's withered pride, while at the same time trying to inject new enthusiasm into civic identity gone stale. Punching it up, applying a new coat of paint to the chipped brick -- musically, Stevens is akin to the 'tree hugger' who takes it upon himself to descend upon a park overrun with litter, and cleans the place 'til it shines. Does the narrator therein ultimately save Michigan and himself? Nah, the task is too cumbersome, too back-breaking. But it's a life of woven with devotion and hard work, and yes, imperfection.

The closer "Vito's Ordination Song" speaks to this further. Somehow absolves the listener, blesses him or her, but does not do so in a sweeping, sugar-coated way. At over 7 minutes, the length of the song is almost the length of some sort of sacramental rite. Ultimately, everything is born of imperfection, but the real 'sin' is in not understanding that we've never been alone unless we choose to. States and cities commit the act of cold isolation on a grand scale, and so do people in their own smaller web of relationships. However, if there's any lesson to be learned here (and I don't think this is an outright morality play, not withstanding the depth), it's to simply truly acknowledge where you stand and whom you're standing next to. Very simple, very beautiful.