An alumnus of faux-naïf folkie collective The Danielson Familie [sic], Sufjan Stevens drew attention earlier this year with his Seven Swans solo project, an album whose dolorous strummings and idiosyncratic religious attitudes drew admiring comparisons with such lo-fi contemporaries as Low and Will Oldham.
In its wake, Rough Trade have given a UK release to last year's monumental double-album Michigan, the first of a proposed 50-volume work of CDs, each dealing musically with a US state. This epic undertaking, he acknowledges, may well take Stevens all his life, provided interest can be sustained that long (by both he and his audience). And however far he gets, it's unlikely that the songs will come as readily as on this initial volume about his home state, a land where climate imposes upon culture more than most, where a typical resident lives "in a trailer home with a snowmobile my car/ The window is broken and the interstate is far", and whose once-great industrial centres are now rusting hulks, like the Detroit brutally summed up as "Once a great place, now a prison".
The album opens in Michael Moore mode with "Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)", where reflective piano and tragic horns soundtrack the plight of one of the city's scrapheap souls: "Since the first of June/ Lost my job and both my room/ I pretend to try/ Even if I try alone." From there, Stevens's attentions tack between the similarly needy spirits of songs such as "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti" and "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)", the bustle of pieces such as "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)", and scenic cameos such as "Tahquamenon Falls".
Each mode has its corresponding musical form: the tourist attractions are brief, tuned-percussion miniatures in the manner of Steve Reich; the sad reflections are picked out in almost apologetically diffident murmurs over scrawny banjo, guitar and horns; and the more industrious tableaux involve complex, Zappa-esque arrangements of woodwind, keyboards and percussion dashing along at perversely stilted time-signatures for up to eight minutes apiece. Taken en masse, the effect is a weird combination of Van Dyke Parks' Discover America and the furrow-browed post-rock of Tortoise, imbued with the brooding intimacy of Leonard Cohen's early albums.
Though not to everyone's taste, the result is a vivid, deeply personal portrait of the territory in question. Perhaps now Rough Trade will issue Stevens' earlier Enjoy Your Rabbit, an electronically realised concept album based on the Chinese calendar. The mind boggles.