Sufjan Stevens

2003: Asthmatic Kitty AKR 007

  1. Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)
  2. All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!
  3. For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
  4. Say Yes! to M!ch!gan!
  5. The Upper Peninsula
  6. Tahquamenon Falls
  7. Holland
  8. Detroit, Lift up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)
  9. Romulus
  10. Alanson, Crooked River
  11. Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie
  12. They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)
  13. Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)
  14. Redford (for Yia-Yia & Pappou)
  15. Vito’s Ordination Song

I don’t imagine that Stevens will fulfill his ambitious intention of recording such an album for all 50 states, as he has started here with Michigan and followed with Illinois—who among us could?—but I fervently hope he gets at least a few more done before abandoning the project, because these first two are SO GOOD.

Both this CD and Illinois seem to have two or three energetic tracks that will obviously hog the spotlight, but there’s a mesmerizing richness here among many of the other tracks that is well worth the number of replays it takes to focus on the gentle stuff. “Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint-Marie” and “Holland” here are especially breathtaking in both their intimacy and the way they seem to shine with something like holiness, and “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” (etc.) carries some similar angelic sadness.

Every other time I played this CD as I first explored it, I found it very Philip-Glass-like, specifically as it reminded me of Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days, although it’s “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” that brings solidly to mind the “The Grid” sequence of the film Koyaanisqatsi (and “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black” confirms the impression). And I do love it when it does so…the allusion may or may not be intended, but it’s impressive regardless of that.

There’s a certain religiousity washing through both of these CDs, and it intrigues me because I can’t tell if it’s first-person or deeply satirical. I’m not accustomed to hearing such musical and lyrical brilliance convey genuine religious feeling, so I’m ever-so-wary of its true nature although not closed to learning that it’s heartfelt and true. I’m just so used to such well-crafted artistry coming from my side of the Faith Fence, as it were, from those who aren’t particularly religious and tend toward the skeptical, that it’s odd to consider that this might actually be something from In There.

“Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” is just dazzling, again in the Koyaanisqatsi way I mentioned above, but also in evoking the skyscrapers, sky, emptiness, and frenetic industrial heritage of Detroit in the song’s “coda” (actually the “coda” runs nearly as long as the energetic first part of this 8'20" track). It’s a knockout, first in its hammer-blows and then in its murkily etherial resolution. “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)” is more relentlessly active than mesmerizing, by comparison, but it’s bursting with care and logic that it makes a fine balancing point for the Detroit piece…and its continually-climbing scale pattern implies promise, although I’m an outsider with regard to Muskegon (and Michigan) so maybe the inference is more specific. I’d love to know.

So much craft has gone into these first two albums, I can think of nothing more to say except Thank You, Sufjan, Thank You VERY Much, And Can I Please Have More?

(Oh—one last thing, actually: this CD has come to me as I’m in the midst of loosely planning a trip, and it has had the unexpected effect of making me want to travel to these Michigan locations to put visuals to the musical impressions Stevens has created. I can’t say I had the same reaction to his Illinois, but it may be simply that the Gacy song put me off my appetite, as it were.)