The last time I checked in with Sufjan Stevens, he had just released his Steve Reich meets Aphex Twin electronic project of Enjoy Your Rabbit, a 12-track cycle with songs roughly tied to the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. It was an ambitious effort, and although it was really his first stab at more of an electronic soundset (his first disc was mainly layered folk), it hit the mark much more than it missed and ended up being an overlooked gem for the year.
Now, Stevens is back with what is easily his most ambitious project yet, and it he follows through with what he has proposed, it will be one of the most ambitious undertakings I've ever heard of in music. Greetings From Michigan is the first in what will supposedly be an album for every state in the country. At heart, the concept is absolutely delightful, and there's enough material to choose from to easily fuel the lyrical and musical content. Thinking of the output is staggering, though, realizing that it would take a person 25 years to accomplish such a feat, even at the pace of 2 full-length albums per year.
That said, if Stevens can create music that is even half as good as the work on Michigan, then listeners are in for a real treat. Although it runs almost 70 minutes in 16 tracks, the music and lyrics contained within are consistently great. Considering that he cut well over an EP worth of material from the release (which he posted on his website), it's even more stunning. The disc opens with the downbeat melancholy of "Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)," a sad piano, trumpet, and vocal piece that would have Michael Moore shedding tears. From there, things pick up with the glorious, dense pop of "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!" and the backporch twang of "For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti."
Although Stevens himself plays something like 25 different instruments on the album himself, he wisely uses some other vocalists as an accent to his own and it works like a charm. "The Upper Peninsula" is a stripped-down shuffler that finds him teaming up with Elin Smith for some haunting two-part harmonies while "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" is another layered, celebratory song about what could and should be with Megan Smith offsetting vocals in almost a round.
Probably the worst complaint that can be leveled against the disc is that some tracks go on for a bit too long, but even despite this, it works quite well. Perhaps one of the best things that can be said about the disc is that Stevens always manages to keep things interesting. There are short instrumentals like the shimmering vibraphone-laden "Tahquamenon Falls," there are quiet, contemplative pieces like the devastating "Romulus," and there are stunningly dense pop tracks like "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Michigan)" (which again calls into reference work by Reich). In all, it's one of the best albums to come out this year, and it marks Stevens as one of the more talented young singer/songwriters working today.