Sunday, February 26, 2006
Mercy and Mortality in Michigan
I buy CDs sort of the way I buy books or watch movies; I go almost entirely on reviews and word of mouth, more former than latter. I rarely have an idea of what a CD will sound like before I buy it. All I know is that a handful of people, or maybe just one person with an intriguing opinion, liked it, or quite possibly it offended someone enough to intrigue me. I don't sample it on Amazon, I never use iTunes (and I've all but given up LimeWire) and I almost never listen to rock radio. Part of the thrill is the surprise, like when you sit down to see a movie or read a book. It's a gamble, but the closer you can get to tabula rasa, the better.
Given this fact, last week I did something that, even for me, was a little scary: I bought not one, but three CDs by an artist whom I'd never heard at all. His name is Sufjan Stevens, and his latest disc Come On Feel the Illinoise has received extraordinary universal praise, winding up on what seemed like every single list of the Top Ten of 2005. (His Metacritic rating says it all.)
My record store Papa Jazz, to which I am totally faithful, gives you a free CD if you buy ten. I had two spots to go on my card, so somehow getting the new one and the previous two for the price of two made a goofy amount of sense.
I haven't heard all three yet, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State is a real beauty. It almost brings to mind Van Morrison's Astral Weeks; it doesn't have the same etheral density, but it has the same kind of lush melodic spiritual jazz, the same kind of aural richness and scope, that same otherworldly feeling of transport, which is strange because (despite its evident Christianity, which I'll get to) it's a very this-worldly record.
Michigan is the first in a bizarre (and, in all likelihood, unworkable) plan to make a CD set in every state (of which Illinoise is the second.) Stevens seems to be aiming less to be the James Michener of indie rock than its Proust, and I mean that in the best way possible. I'm thinking of the Proust for whom place-names evoke sense associations, memories, feelings, and dreams. Stevens -- who had the good sense to start with his own backyard -- captures not just the Michigan he knows but a Michigan state of mind, a wide-ranging landscape of broken dreams. A superb multi-instrumentalist, ambitiously imagistic lyricist, and seriously devout Episcopalian (according to a 2004 Pitchfork interview) he creates a series of sad, searing and spirited vignettes covering the whole state, with geographic titles that are as intriguing as the songs themselves.
Inside these variously bright and bittersweet melodies are stories of people living in a world that is cold inside and out, and which contrasts Stevens' own introspective love of God with a deep sense of human lovelessness and loneliness, his and others. This is the Michigan of the displaced, from its smothering big cities to its desolate small towns, populated by homeless people, neglected children, lost lovers, the unmourned dead and the soon to be.
It starts with a kind of dirge, "Flint (For the Underemployed and Underpaid)," where a faceless ex-worker who has lost everything ponders dying alone. That same loss of connection continues in "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," although here it's a little harder to get a grip on exactly who is speaking; is it the voice of widows who have given everything and are willing to give more, or Christ Himself? "Detroit! Lift Up Your Weary Head" is a melancholy samba whose insistent, Philip Glass-like repetition evokes the industrial energy of a city -- "once a great place, now a prison" -- that churns on into obsolesence.
Stevens can be equally powerful at the acoustic level, when he breaks a song down to the simplest instumentation and sparsest words. In "Romulus," where a son recalls his deadbeat mom, the details are exact, real, and heartbreaking:
We saw her once last fall
Our grandpa died in his hospital gown
She didn't seem to care
She smoked in the room
And colored her hair
"I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her," goes the chorus -- and they convey not condemnation but a real pinch of regret, a sense of shame (toward his mother, toward himself) for broken lives and relationships that never heal.
The disc is more or less divided between such small intimate stories and larger, more imagistic tone poems where words are used for sound and rhythm, creating rhymes that tend at times to curdle into obscurity or lameness. I will also admit his sensibilities skirt a certain deadly earnestness, a mix of Belle and Sebastian tweeness and Christian radio sincerity. And yet, there's no denying that his faith is part of what powers this record from beginning to end -- from the jobless wanderer in Flint to, 14 songs later, a kind of extended vision of God's beneficence to all the fallen and wounded. Stevens' own private Michigan is a wonderland of beauty, loneliness, redemption and rebirth, and this record delivers it with sonic majesty and genuine emotional force. I can't stop listening to it.