Once Upon a Midwest: Farewell, for now, from the Great Lake State

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 7:18pm

There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.

We were Michigan-bound again, making the four-hour drive north through the bitter winter to see our family. The old sedan groaned and creaked down slush-covered highways. The heater was broken, and the wind whistled through the cracked window, out of which my mother’s cigarette smoke was escaping. Our dog had me flattened against the drafty car door, and I only had music to keep me warm. 

I had just discovered Sufjan Stevens’s Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State, an album composed of songs named after Michigan cities. I was listening in the hopes it might remind me of the home my family was constantly trying to return to, beating against the economic torrents that anchored us away. The album carried me down the highways, along Lake Erie and across the border. I was fourteen, I was freezing and for the first time in my life, I had felt realized. The stripped, acoustic opening of “Romulus” hummed in my ears. I cried into my winter coat. My love for the Midwest comes from this one moment.

I had been introduced to the myth of Sufjan Stevens. He is the true midwestern legend, whose origin is so essential to his music. That origin had existed and saturated music long before Justin Vernon isolated himself in a cabin in northern Wisconsin. Sufjan — an artist who has transcended so near to a folk hero that he is known by his first name — may be Brooklyn-based, but his roots are Midwestern. His soft voice, stoicism and haggard acoustics register clearly as such in disposition. I have met countless people from all over Michigan who have told me, “Sufjan went to my high school.” They say this with wide eyes and a look that suggests not even they believe it, as if Sufjan were a figment, a figure that could have never been born and bred in familiar places.

Sufjan is Michigan’s ghost, the man born in Detroit who floated unconsciously throughout the lower peninsula, moving from town to town without roots. Sufjan’s songs are burdened with Christian pleas for understanding, disguised beneath the sparkling veneer of bells and trumpets. His voice is delicate and distant, like an apparition. Who is this creature whose lyrics praise life as death? Who is this man, who has produced hour upon hour of idiosyncratic Christmas music? It is Sufjan, he who has written two entire albums about midwestern states — Illinois and Michigan. However, it is Greetings from Michigan that is his unsung masterpiece.

Greetings from Michigan is not perfect. It is not the carefully crafted masterpiece that is Illinois. It is not the raw collection of confusion and pain found in Carrie & Lowell. No, Michigan is an hour-long affair, awash in nostalgia, rooted in cities and memories. The lyrics and sounds are neither linear nor simple. It is an amalgamation of disorientation, heartache and wistfulness. Each song is filled with hurt as they attempt to grapple with a childhood wasted, with a home forgotten.

For Sufjan, Michigan becomes less of a place than an idea, tangled up in poverty, abandonment and the toll of industry, suffocated by the figment of rurality encroaching on the outskirts of town.

Songs like “Holland” and “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” are shocking, standing out in their austere acoustics and simple lyrics. “Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie” puts the feeling of taking in a beautiful view into sound, accompanied by the noise of crickets. These songs are more sound poetry than music, crafting images and ideas from Sufjan’s memories. In connecting each song to a city, he is essentially building Michigan — a Michigan dependent on his memories. As Sufjan recounts these images from his Michigan, he also mythologizes it.

The album is not universally loved. It is brilliant and beautiful, but almost inaccessible, weighed down by Sufjan’s personal bewilderment in attempting to understand his home in a pre-Carrie & Lowell world. It lacks the refinement of Sufjan’s later attempts at understanding his mother and relationship with God. He is audibly confused, as in songs like “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” But for those of us who see our own histories in Sufjan’s songs — those abandoned, lost and impoverished, especially in Michigan — the album is a call from home.

Sufjan rewards those who understand his hurt. The most incredible part of the album may not be the music, but the “Michigan Stories”: the small prose-poems in the liner notes that help illuminate what Sufjan was saying in his songs. “We have been known from the very start,” Sufjan wrote for “Vito’s Ordination Song.” He understands that we are what we are, and yet we may hate that. “Don’t worry. Put away your mirrors and your beauty magazines and your books on tape. There is someone right here who knows you more than you do,” he writes. “There is no space left uncovered.” He does not put this burden on God, however. He doesn’t put it on anyone. For Sufjan, it is home who knows you. It is Michigan.

Sufjan Stevens is not really a myth or a folk hero. He is a man whose self doubt and hurt are so recognizable for downtrodden midwesterners that we can only understand that familiarity as myth. I have been reintroduced to this album countless times throughout my life, each time in a different state of dissatisfaction with the pleasant peninsula I have struggled to call home. Each time, I am reduced to a single moment. I hear “Romulus,” and I am a fourteen-year old boy again, pressed against the car door while my mother — who would disappear two years later — smoked in the seat in front of me.

I am again a Michigander, economically stranded in another state, moving through the Rust Belt like an industrial refugee. I am again crying into my coat because someone had finally put into song what it felt like to pretend to belong to a place. I find myself back there still, shivering next to the door, my heart emptying out in each puff of breath that hangs in the frigid air. 

The things that make us, that make our home, are constant. I am not that fourteen-year old boy. I have a home; I have my Michigan. But he will always be a piece of me, the tremors in my rib cage or the twitching in my arm. Greetings from Michigan will always be a piece of me, rattling its immortal glockenspiel in dusty corners of my memory.