Singer/Songwriter Sufjan Stevens has made a career of confounding expectations. His love of genre jumping and collaborating is the thing of legends. Still a relatively young performer at the age of 41 he has amassed 10 studio albums over the last 17 years while achieved critical acclaim and carved a singular niche for himself in the popular and alternative music arenas. He has gyred among lo fi folk and experimental techno along with many styles in between. His true medium where he shines the brightest is within his own glorious amalgam of literary allusions, Christian spiritual themes and searing personal revelations. All of which are delivered with remarkable delicacy, simplicity and earnestness. His music inhabits many stylistic spheres but he seems to never be bound by them. He follows no script or commercial concerns he just listens to his instincts making himself an enigmatic and compelling artist.
Stevens grew up in Michigan near Detroit in a challenging and unstable family environment. Much of the instability was due to his mother’s bipolar disorder and her leaving the family when Stevens was very young. He would be raised by his father and stepmother and although he would visit his mother and his stepfather from time to time, he would really never get to know her well. Her death would inspire Stevens most recent studio effort 2015’s “Carrie & Lowell” which explored his relationship or lack thereof with her and the all encompassing sorrow of her passing.
From an early age Stevens would show a proficiency in music. He would eventually become a multi-instrumentalist to the nth degree, seeming to be able to only pick up an instrument and know how to play it. After college he would bounce between a literary and musical career. It would take until 2004 with the successful release of “Seven Swans” and the subsequent tour for him to finally leave his day job as a children’s literary editor. In the period prior to the release of “Seven Swans” Stevens had released three well received albums. His 2000’s debut “The Sun Came Out” was part of the New Folk movement, 2001’s “Enjoy Your Rabbit” theme was inspired by the animals of the zodiac signs and was more electronic in sonics. The release just prior to “Seven Swans” the magnificent “Michigan” was a tribute to the state of his birth, his family and loved ones. Where Stevens had in the past strongly hinted at his Christian faith but cleverly masked his beliefs, there would be no doubt after the release of “Seven Swans” as to his religious convictions.
“Seven Swans” was produced by Sufjan with Daniel Smith at Smith’s home studio and at The New Jerusalem Rec Room in Clarksboro, NJ. Members of Smith’s family and his band Danielson Famile contributed to “Seven Swans” helping flesh out the release. Daniel aided with vocals and bass, David and Andrew Smith on drums and Megan Smith on back vocals. The majority of the album is comprised of sonically lush acoustic compositions featuring Stevens’ brilliant banjo treatments that are a mixture of both the earth bound and otherworldly. Throughout the album Stevens displays his Christian faith respectfully but with passion and flights of imagination. There is a distinct sense of his approaching his faith with a sense of childlike wonder and awe. “Seven Swans” until the release of “Carrie and Lowell” was his gentlest and most intimate release. Many times it is like prayers set to music producing modern hymns of introspection with a healthy dose of the triumphant. Yet throughout the strongly religious release there is no attempt to proselytize but instead gives the listener a view into Stevens’ fellowship with his maker. For the non believer there is much to enjoy with the delicate melodies and Stevens fragile vocal stylings. Meanwhile believers can certainly recognize the sign of the fish signaled throughout the offerings. “Seven Swans” is by far Stevens’ most emphatic Christian work to date.
“Seven Swans” begins with the glorious “All the Trees will clap Their Hands”. The song was inspired by Isaiah 55:12 and is filled with joy. It is a song that presents the small and delicate human preparing to be awed by the power of God revealed in nature through the lyric, “and I heard from the trees a great parade and I heard from the hills a band was made and will I be invited to the sound?”. The banjo builds and builds like an ascending staircase leading ever upward. However the song is also inclusive as it can be taken as a joyful love song. It is simple yet majestic and counterintuitively triumphant in its surrender to the Creator.
“The Dress Looks Nice on You” again walks that fine line of religious and carnal meaning. It is an evocative love song but also the voice of an involved omnipresent God rejoicing in the human spark found in each person’s extraordinary promise, “I can see a lot of life in you”. It is a master turn as a song using the allure of Steven’s velvety vocal and the gentle soothing guitar to create a delightful selection.
The allegorical “In the Devil’s Territory” has allusions aplenty from John Bunyan’s literary work Pilgrims Progress. Additionally it utilizes apocalyptic imagery from the Book of Revelations. Expressed is the yearning for salvation and eternity. This is best represented by the song narrator being portrayed as an every person recalling the Pilgrim Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. Contrasted are the terrestrial world or Devil’s territory and the heavenly territory of the second verse. Captured is the desire to meet the creator, “to see you, to meet you, to see you at last”. It is an inspired lyrical poem with an excellent musical structure.
“To Be Alone with You” is probably the most popular song off the release. This instantly winning song again displays the expert blending of secular with the eternal. For the secular listener the song is a heart felt love song. For the devout a spectacular examination of a person relationship with God leaving no doubt that the “you” of the song is Jesus Christ; “you gave up a wife and a family, you gave up your ghost…to be alone with me you went up on a tree”, it is that simple and that meaningful. The track features a wondrous acoustic guitar and becomes even more unforgettable with Steven’s whispery vocal and blended vocals on the chorus. The song is filled with uplift galore and once listened to will not let you go.
“Abraham” is a song that shakes me to my very core with its inherent beauty. It is the stark and simple retelling of the story of Abraham and Jehovah’s asking him to sacrifice his long awaited for and beloved son Isaac. Stevens in very few words conveys the awe he has for the obedience of Abraham in an unimaginable situation. He puts you in Abraham’s place, leaving you to ponder how he could obey and not second guess Jehovah’s request. This wonder is made even more redolent by understanding that many religions of the period included child sacrifice. Abraham would rightly have believed that in Jehovah being the one true God he would never make that demand, yet here he was, “Take up on the wood put it on your son”. At the time of the request he would have no idea Isaac would be spared, yet Abraham only obeyed. What transpired would be handed down through the ages as an object lesson that would parallel God ultimately not sparing but sacrificing his only son for mankind, “Abraham put off your son take instead the ram until Jesus comes.” This song is powerful and is a glorious ode to the faith of Abraham and a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion. This whole drama is played out over a simple and otherworldly accompaniment that fully supports the theme of the track.
“Sister” is a track filled with sunlit imagery. The water in the lyric represents the beauty of nature and how it can turn from frightening to friendly in a moment. The song also addresses how siblings once so close can lose touch, “…I have a sister somewhere in Detroit”. The song is bittersweet and introspective. In the accompaniment the electric guitar and drums come to the forefront marking the first time a full band sonic is utilized. Sufjan’s commitment to the stripped down acoustic throughout the recording only enhances the use of electric guitar and keyboards on this song emphasizing the emotions in the track. The threading of the needle on the song makes for an emotional response and another captivating selection. ‘Size Too Small” is a personal reverie that speaks to the fidelity of friendship and what happens as that relationship changes through events and time passing. Here the narrator is a best man pondering what his friend’s marriage will mean to their friendship and if that friendship can stretch to accommodate the new situation. This song probably shows up Steven’s vocal phrasing to its best advantage.
“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” is the shortest song of the release but as powerful as the others. It is again the blending of imagery from the book of Revelation portraying the singing of the saints around the throne of God and the imagery of Christian Communion rites. The organ provides the drama of the heavenly and divine and has a gorgeous Spanish influenced guitar that is brilliant. ‘A Good Man is Hard To Find” uses the character of the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name. Here is presented an unrepentant sinner and contemptible character. It is a contradiction in terms to think this individual is a good man by any stretch of the imagination. If you have encountered O’Connor’s short story the song is a magnificent musical representation of the narrative. The track is gripping with spiraling guitars and distorted heady studio effects.
“He Woke Me Up Again” can be taken as a bit tongue and cheek or a bit roman a clef. It is the story about an overly devout father rising at an early hour insisting a reluctant and sleepy son join him in worship. What he manages instead is to build resentment in the son for being awoken at an early hour. One gets the impression that the son/narrator of the story would much rather worship at St. Mattress the Redeemer for a while longer than join dad in hymn singing, “But I’m still asleep and you woke me up again and I’m still asleep but you woke me up to be holy.” The chipper banjo and wonky organ set up a celestial surrounding of a Sunday morning setting that allows for a perfect back drop to the song.
The last two songs are a conjoined pair with heavy Biblical symbolism. “Seven Swans” is a tale of apocalyptic terror as Christ returns to render judgment, avenging evil and securing triumph over the minions of iniquity. Here displayed are humans cowering before an all powerful God before being offered redemption delivered by grace which is best captured by the lyric “If you run he will chase you”. The swans in the song symbolize a variety of Christian images found in Revelation; the seven archangels who come with the final plagues and the seven churches of Revelation. Seven for Christian scholars has important symbolic meaning and is frequently utilized in the Book of Revelation with the seven churches, seven signs, seven horns etc. The accompaniment of the song starts with a simple banjo and builds and builds as the drama unfolds. The song finishes with the imagery of the saints singing praises to God on his throne, “cause he is the Lord” and Stevens conveying a kind of ecstatic mental state at viewing the splendor of the Almighty. The song is a goosebump producer and simply magnificent. The second song of the duo and final selection is “The Transfiguration” it is gloriously triumphant in that moment yet bittersweet in the realization of the suffering that awaits Jesus. The lyrics tell the story of Christ’s transfiguration, the confirmation that Jesus was the chosen one, “Lost in the cloud, a voice, Lamb of God, we draw near, lost in the cloud a sign, son of man, Son of God.” Again there is the dramatic build to the climax of the song which is cleansing and cathartic. Stevens utilizes numerous instruments to build the cacophony of triumph and uplift in the song, then he suddenly bringing the track and the album to a glorious ending.
It was clear with “Seven Swans” that Sufjan Stevens was taking a commercial risk. He followed his creative instincts with no concern for the commercial results and came up with an enduring masterwork. Whether it was Stevens’ intention or not “Seven Swans” disputed the accepted image of all Christians being straight-laced, po-faced individuals. Instead he offered up the image of imperfect beings seeking answers and guidance from a benevolent omnipresent deity. There is great joy and wonder presented throughout the songs and never a moment of preachiness. After “Seven Swans” Stevens would go on to release a wide array of differing genre albums that are stunning for their prolific variety. Sufjan Stevens with “Seven Swans” produced an album that displayed for those of faith that beauty and inspired creativity is possible and that the age of miracles in not yet over. “Seven Swans” is an enduring and evocative creation providing balm for the soul. Stevens may oscillate between folk and electronic offerings but this album reveals all his true gifts.