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Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans

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Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Seven Swans

Label: Sounds Familyre

Review date: Mar. 7, 2004

Sufjan Steven’s last record, Michigan, arrived like a bolt from the blue. Its doe-eyed clarity and refined melodic sweep trumped most of last year’s excuses for pop and functioned in service of something substantial – a celebration and a critique, a reframing of the way in which we might view our country. Through vignettes and sketches of his native state Stevens reinvigorated civic slogans (“Restore! Rebuild! Reconsider!”) without cashing them in as the confederate currency of camp. He invoked scenic postcard environs and shiny chrome bumpers as the stuff of prelapsarian promise, incanting in the language of the Chippewa, the French Canadian, the laid-off GM factory worker (“Michigan! Ponshewaing! Cadillac!”). He translated Michael Moore’s rebel bellow into the fragile, solemn lilt of a Vienna Boys Choir soloist, augmenting his message with muted trumpets and high school marching band trombones. Standing outside of a year in which a sleight of hand put populism at the beck and call of Big Business; in which Democratic presidential candidates wore optimism and religion like uncomfortable headdresses that might appeal to swing voters, Michigan drew a distinction between anger and sadness, between rousing celebration and the quiet certainty of belief. It struck a truer note than blind patriotism or knee-jerk self-loathing, and topped many a year-end list for good reason.

At one point Stevens suggested that he might train his gaze on the rest of the country and record homages to each of the 49 other states, but that unrealistic plan has wisely been put on the backburner. Instead Steven’s follow-up, Seven Swans, is an acutely personal record, one that retains the wistful, angelic pop mode of Michigan and uses it to affirm a first-person relationship with God. The opener, “All The Trees Of The Fields Will Clap Their Hands,” sets the mood that the rest of the album works to unpack and explore. Over a hushed banjo figure Stevens asserts his faith (“I’m still applied to what You are / And I am joining all my thoughts to You.”) as piano, percussion, and the choral backing of Danielson Famile members Elin and Megan Smith rise to meet his message. Throughout Seven Swans, the precise layering of warm instrumentation – guitar and banjo, piano and organ – functions in service of Stevens’ belief, both as a Brian Wilson-esque “teenage symphony to God” and, in the repentant “In The Devil’s Territory,” as a shield against evil, where each chorus builds to a cascading wail as piano, strings, and synth effects protect Stevens’ lonesome voice, intoning “We stayed a long, long time / To see you, to beat you, to see you at last.”

Stevens infuses even his most melancholy songs with a warm, loving glow. His “Abraham,” with its softly reverberating guitar notes and abstracted accompaniment is a far cry from something like Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” which recounts the same Old Testament story much more flatly, over a bouncy bass line and wheezing jew’s harp. Steven’s pristine focus ebbs somewhat on the lengthy electric opening to the next track, “Sister,” and on the final track, “The Transfiguration,” which unwisely attempts an elongated build a la Low, only without the Duluth trio’s solid bass-end foundation. Nevertheless, it’s this quality of loving concentration that lifts much of Seven Swans into the realm of divinity.

Listening to this record again recently I was reminded of an afternoon spent discussing Bellow’s Seize The Day for a college lit class. At the time, a handful of classmates were completely unwilling to accept the final scene of Tommy Wilhelm weeping openly at a stranger’s funeral as anything other than a cruel and ironic joke on the part of Bellow. One girl pointed repeatedly at the title page and recited the copyright date as a kind of mantra, as if the fact of the book’s recent publication prevented the climax from being sincere, restricted Tommy from any semblance of spiritual possibility. Faith of all types has come to possess so much ancillary baggage that it’s become difficult to express it honestly or to explore it without distance – nearly a century’s worth of distance in the case of something like the new Goodbye Babylon box. Seven Swans is very overtly and unabashedly about faith, and its beauty works in service of that faith. It’s an arresting record that doesn’t pull strings or elide with gimmicks, nor does it preach or try to persuade. You needn’t believe in a higher order to realize that Seven Swans is an expression of something stirring, something beautiful.

By Nathan Hogan

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