The 2000’s began with the Napster era, which spawned a whole new online culture of music sharing and discovery. After Napster was shut down, the revolution continued as people swapped music and bands that never would have gained much exposure found themselves being promoted by fans all over the web. Sometime around 2004 I began to spend a lot of time reading online music sites, searching for new bands and artists to listen to. I would page through message boards and read reviews and then go find samples of the music to listen to before finally ordering a CD from the artist. This is how I found the music of Sufjan Stevens.
Stevens already had two albums to his name when he released Michigan in 2003. This third album scored a myriad of positive reviews online and turned him into an indie music superstar. I was drawn to the album based on the recommendations of many online reviewers that I trusted. When I ordered the CD for Asthmatic Kitty Records, I remember listening to it straight through while reading the lyrics in the booklet. I immediately noticed that many of the song titles were extremely wordy, but interesting none the less. As I listened, I was struck by the dense arrangements and the general “feel” of the album. Stevens managed to give the imbue the music itself with the feel of the albums subject: the state of Michigan. He penned songs about specific towns, areas, people and events contained within Michigan. The songs ranged from quiet, contemplative ballads (“Holland”) to bombastic, marching anthems (“All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!”). Stevens was obviously not just a talented writer and researcher, but a fantastic musician and producer as well. Indeed, Stevens produced and recorded this album himself using only a few microphones and ProTools. He enlisted members of the Danielson Famile (a band he’d previously played in) to fill out the vocals and a few random instruments. His music is completely unique partly because Stevens himself is unique and he takes full control of the writing and recording processes.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the instrument that seems to take center stage throughout this album: the banjo. Prior to this album, the banjo rarely entered the indie rock arena, instead being found only in bluegrass and country music. With the release of this album, the banjo suddenly became a must have instrument for aspiring indie folk rockers (yeah, I bought one on Craig’s List). Andrew Bird got press for his whistling prowess, Stevens got it for his banjo. It wasn’t the catalyst that earned him his fame, but it was an important aspect of his music that set him apart from the pack.
Like Sigur Ros’ ( ), Michigan became a touchstone album for me. I became completely enamored with the big arrangements and the high-concept presentation of the album. Stevens art wasn’t just about the studio, it was also about the library. He studied before he recorded and poured his research out in the form of songs. He also was a multi-instrumentalist who filled up almost all the overdubs on his own. I soon found myself wanting to branch in my own music to include playing different instruments. I had a mandolin, so I picked that back up. I soon bought a banjo and acquired a number of other unique instruments that I’ve tried to play. I still probably play the most guitar, but I’ve definitely succeeded in broadening my range and I owe that to Sufjan Stevens and to this album in particular.