Sufjan Stevens released ‘Michigan’ 20 years ago. It still reminds me of home.
I lived 19 of my 23 winters in New York and its suburbs. I lived many of those corresponding summers in my mother’s home state of Minnesota. Or, I should say: It felt like many; it might have only been four or five total. A parade of firsts—jobs and girlfriends—put an end to the Midwest journeys once I reached high school.
But real, lived time is not as uniform as our calendars argue. My years rolled by faster as I got older, picking up speed like a careering snowball in a Looney Tunes cartoon. So those summers in northern Minnesota cast enormous shadows in my head. They couldn’t be farther from the world I’ve inhabited in New York—although not for the reasons you might think.
The pace at which ‘Michigan’ toggles between gratitude and loss would be jarring, if it weren’t so hauntingly beautiful.
The woods and lakes of Minnesota served as the backdrop for my early teenage dramas, both comedies and tragedies. Because of that, the state took on a mythic status in my head, something akin to the enchanted forest of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s funny—I think that’s how a lot of people see New York. This city has always danced on the chain-link fence between fact and fable. But for me, Minnesota holds that special place, the setting of a simpler time when everything mattered less, and simultaneously so much more.
If I had the talent to write an album about it, that album would look a lot like “Michigan,”by Sufjan Stevens.
Now one of the biggest names in indie music, Stevens released his ode to his home state 20 years ago this July, back when he was just a New York transplant with a love of storytelling. He wrote and recorded it entirely on his own while holding down another job. From what I understand, it flew pretty low under the radar; the next (and last [?]) album from his incomplete 50 States Project, “Illinois,”was the masterpiece that really launched his music-making career in 2005.
“Michigan” will always face comparisons to “Illinois”over its themes and sound, and it is often overshadowed by its highly lauded younger brother. And I get it. I love “Illinois.”I’ll write about it in two years. But right now, in 2023, I’m writing about this album, which represents the idea of home and all its imperfections.
The pace at which “Michigan” toggles between gratitude and loss would be jarring, if it weren’t so hauntingly beautiful. You will not rest for a moment listening to this album. No sooner will you lose yourself in mournful minor piano chords than will Stevens rouse you with a jazzy, uptempo riff in 5/4 time.
‘Michigan’ is an album that asks what progress really is, and how we look back at the progress we’ve made.
I am, in fact, describing the first two songs of the album. The first track is reminiscent of “Taps,” or Scott Joplin’s “Solace”—a bitter salute to the fallen. And what else could it sound like? The song is called “Flint (For the Unemployed and the Underpaid),” naming and eulogizing the residents of the state’s notoriously troubled city. The lyrics are bleak, and even more so when you remember that Stevens wrote it in 2003, before its namesake became synonymous with undrinkable water and criminal mismanagement. So many of the album’s musings remain tragically relevant. The first statement Stevens makes on an album called “Michigan”is a reminder of perhaps the state’s greatest shortcoming.
But suddenly the minor melody of “Flint” gives way to the sturdy, enterprising “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!”, complete with a smooth key change. The tenor of the lyrics change too, from phrases like “Since the first of June/ Lost my job and lost my room” to the wordy triumph of “Entertain ideas of great communion/ Shelter not materials in union!”
This whiplash continues throughout the album, leaping back and forth between tender soliloquies and energetic proclamations filled with wry humor. This is not an impressionist or abstract portrait—it’s hyperrealism. Each ugly splotch on his home’s history, each shining moment of light, each deeply ambiguous reality of post-manufacturing Michigan is rendered in meticulous detail.
At the same time, it’s an album about progress. It’s an album that asks what progress really is, and how we look back at the progress we’ve made. Stevens recounts the demise of industry in Michigan and the failed attempts to revive it. He alludes to colonialism and the erased history of Indigenous people. He shows snapshots of lives that have fallen victim to the passage of time in different ways.
The characters that Stevens creates throughout the album are Michigan: the unemployed loner in “Flint;” a poor father estranged from his wife in “The Upper Peninsula;” a young lover in “Holland.” Time passes without pause, and the residents of Michigan are trying to figure out how to cope.
I won’t dissect every lyric of this album or fit its puzzle pieces together perfectly. I respect “Michigan” too much to try.
At the album’s core is “Romulus,” in which Stevens becomes one of those characters himself. He recounts his troubled relationship with his mother, who left his family and suffered from drug addiction and mental illness. The vignettes in “Romulus” might bring you to tears, not just because they are so sad, but because they are simultaneously so full of love. We see clearly that all the ambiguity contained in Michigan (the state) and “Michigan” (the album) are contained within Stevens himself. He remembers praying that his mother never leaves during a visit and also feeling deep shame at her indifference. Such is the reality of love.
And on this album, love is home, and love is God. Stevens’ faith is hard to pin down, but the rich Christian tradition of holding heartbreak and healing in the same hand haunts his music. He calls out to the Lamb of God in “Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie,” asking for both Christ’s “perfect design” and also his “rod.” In the opening lines of “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” he refers to those with broken families as his “children” and plays with “morning” and “mourning” to blur the line between sorrow and hope.
As Stevens told Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork in 2015, the artist’s understanding of love is that it is “unconditional and incomprehensible.” That perspective is not unique to “Michigan,” but this album presents it with such unflinching honesty that it’s almost hard to believe he shared it with the world. (And then you remember that he did it again on “Carrie & Lowell”in 2015.)
I won’t dissect every lyric of this album or fit its puzzle pieces together perfectly. I respect “Michigan” too much to try. Maybe this, my sign-off from the O’Hare Fellowship here at America and from New York itself, is less an album review than a manifesto. This city will soon take its gilded place alongside Minnesota as a land of myth and memory. I think it’s valuable—and inevitable—to romanticize the places that made us.
But I would echo Sufjan Stevens, that romance never ignores what is ugly or broken. The mantra of one of Stevens’ best songs, “Chicago” off “Illinois,”is the simple statement that “I made a lot of mistakes.” That is true for me both in Minnesota and in New York. I’ve learned that growing up (to whatever extent I’ve grown up in the last decade) is about coming to terms with those mistakes and making peace with them.
“Michigan” says that, too. Scattered among the highs and lows of the album are two tracks— “Tahquamenon Falls” and “Alanson, Crooked River”—without vocals or orchestral instrumentation. Stevens represents these two bodies of water only through polyrhythmic chimes. The water is a respite from the emotion of “Michigan’’’s cities and towns, a place to retreat and remind yourself that you are just one part of a vast and enduring world. You cannot control everything, not even yourself most days, and that’s okay.
It’s a lesson I will take with me as I march on from home.