There is a rumor in New York City that writer, director and political provocateur Michael Moore is bringing his popular West End London theatre-style show to Broadway. If this is true, Sufjan Stevens' self-produced third album Greetings From Michigan would be the ideal soundtrack.
In recent years, such critically acclaimed artists as Red House Painters and Devendra Banhart have made Michigan their muse for certain songs, but Stevens has crafted a concept album of pocket symphonies to bring to life the political, social and economic malaise currently festering in his home state.
As in the work of Flint, Michigan native Moore, tales of homelessness, fatherless children, unemployment, and poverty-level wages serve as the backdrop for Stevens' discontent. Where Moore distances himself from the pain of his subject by using sarcasm and humor in his films and his writing, Stevens employs intricately arranged Gershwin-style compositions to achieve the same effect.
The question that looms large over this album is whether or not the compositions, when removed from the context of this theme album, stand up as successful and listenable songs on their own merits. There are instances where this is accomplished, but there are also a number of tracks that come across with the humor of a "South Park"-inspired public service announcement. It seems that Stevens' political leanings on this album cause him to fail, on occasion, for the same reasons that Michael Moore does in his work.
Both Stevens and Moore tend to abandon their substantive beliefs at certain points in favor of exuding a certain style. In Stevens' case, this style manifests itself in the form of overreaching instrumentation and lethargic melodies.
Album opener "Flint" falls into this exact trap. A piano-driven melody with light percussion and tepid vocals, "Flint" is meandering and difficult; it's not a strong opener, that's for sure. But don't reach for the stop button, because things begin to pick up considerably with "All Good Naysayers," which soars due to a sublime cascading background vocal, courtesy of Elin and Megan Smith of the Danielson Famile. The Smith sisters harmonize well with Stevens' nasal, understated lead vocal, and the effect sets a high standard of harmonization, which is kept up for the remainder of the album. Piano and horns complete the instrumentation and create a stage-ready soundscape reminiscent of the early work of the Glaswegian band Belle and Sebastian.
Perhaps the most poignant track on the record, "For the Widows in Paradise," tells the stirring tale of urban mothers whose husbands have abandoned them and their offspring. To accentuate the somber tone of the track, Stevens uses acoustic guitar, banjo and trumpet during the choruses, giving the song a sparse but complete feel in the country-folk vein. The fifth track, "The Upper Peninsula," utilizes the same instrumentation to only slightly lesser results. Listeners can easily imagine themselves destitute and struggling in Michigan's desolate and remote Upper Peninsula.
There are also a few songs on the album that, although they have gorgeous melodies and elaborate arrangements, come across as veiled barbs aimed at the State of Michigan; lyrically, they dissipate the power of the more earnest songs. While "Detroit Lift Up Your Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" is one of the most arresting tracks on the album for its sound, it feels less like a call for resurgence than a witty swipe at an impoverished crime-ridden metropolitan area. Despite this, it is still a must-listen for the inspired arrangement that embodies the sound of the Flaming Lips, if the Lips were backed by a full orchestra.
Along these same lines is "Say Yes to Michigan," which sounds like the backing track for a commercial put together by the Michigan tourism board. You can almost see the imagery of young children running on the banks of Lake Michigan at sunset, or maybe a family wandering through a country fair in Flint. The trumpet work truly carries this track and allows the listener to disregard the distraction of Stevens' sarcastic lyrics.
The jazz-inflected "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)" finds Stevens returning for the remainder of the album to the earnest storytelling and political posturing that worked so well for him earlier in the album. Scattered drumbeats blend effortlessly with xylophone to provide the main accompaniment for Stevens' diatribe about the homeless problem in Michigan. This semi-rant is given a brief respite in the bridges between chorus and verse with the addition of backing vocals that mimic the xylophone melody. French horn and violin weave in and out of the mix and do much to enhance the overall feel of the recording.
Stevens seems to step outside of the strict confines of his concept for final track "Vito's Ordination Song," which brings to mind the late Elliot Smith's Either/Or. Here we find Stevens at perhaps his finest, and hopefully this is some indication of his future direction. Straightforward in its production, the song features Stevens singing in concert with Megan Smith. An allegory about familial redemption, the song finishes the album's voyage with sheets of sound meandering behind the vocal harmonies. Piano, brushed percussion, French horn, xylophone, trumpet and oboe all make an appearance, adding to the song's uniqueness.
Despite its share of strong moments, Greetings from Michigan still manages to disappoint. Many of the tracks appear to be caught up in the zeal of their arrangements or the wonder of their own wit. If Stevens were able to sustain the energy and focus of the stronger tracks he would have realized a powerful concept album. Instead we are left with a handful of songs that make our life better than before we heard them, and another fistful that are better left behind. Perhaps this is where we see the true similarity between Stevens and Michael Moore: Both are quite talented and gifted; both seem a bit too taken with their talent; and both end up preaching to the converted. That said, count me as a convert, albeit a reluctant one.