Sufjan Stevens, “Seven Swans”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #79 – released March 16, 2004)

Track listing: All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands / The Dress Looks Nice On You / In The Devil’s Territory / To Be Alone With You / Abraham / Sister / Size Too Small / We Won’t Need Legs To Stand / A Good Man Is Hard To Find / He Woke Me Up Again / Seven Swans / The Transfiguration

When he took the stage at the Academy Awards last week, Sufjan Stevens was likely unknown to a good chunk of the worldwide viewing audience. I can only imagine what kind of impression he made on them with his gentle, fragile voice and equally delicate/intricate music (not to mention his outré pink-and-white vertical striped jacket.) Joined by a typically eccentric band of indie-leaning musicians including St. Vincent and Chris Thile, Stevens performed his nominated song “Mystery of Love”, one of two compositions he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name. A shimmering tapestry of acoustic guitar, mandolin and other pizzicato, bell-like sounds topped off by his yearning vocals, it’s quintessential Sufjan in that it’s accessible, almost impossibly lovely and sounds like little else.

This notion of discovering Stevens on as immense and unlikely a platform as the Oscars takes me back to the first time I heard him, fourteen years ago when I was assigned to review Seven Swans for a music website (more about that in the next entry.) I recall lying on my bed as (take a breath) “All The Trees of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” began with a lone banjo playing a four-chord arpeggio, soon joined by a hushed, choirboy vocal falling somewhere between Elliot Smith and Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough. One by one, other layers (acoustic piano, female “da, da, da’s”) appeared over those same chords, the entire thing building and gradually solidifying into a gorgeous whole. It immediately left me beguiled—I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. Yes, it was folkish, singer-songwriter stuff, but it emanated awe at a level both intense and slightly unsettling (more so than comforting.)

His fourth album in as many years, Seven Swans arrived just eight months after his previous release (and the first to receive any college radio airplay), Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, a song cycle exactly about what it says it is. The latter was the first in a planned series of LPs, one for each of the fifty states. This absurdly ambitious undertaking (which to date has not gone beyond two albums) was my first inkling that Stevens was not only a major talent, but perhaps also a little nuts. The press release I received for Seven Swans positioned it as a break from that project, made up of recent songs falling outside those parameters. Recorded in producer Daniel Smith’s rec room, it stood in direct contrast to most of Michigan’s more extroverted menagerie of horns, polyrhythms, weird keyboards and epic-length narratives. As I would later find out, it was also absolutely nothing like the all-over-the-map indie rock of his debut, A Sun Came! (2000) or the instrumental, impenetrable electronic experimentation of Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001).

Multiple Seven Swans songs follow the lead of “All The Trees…”, building an arrangement one piece at a time, repeating the melody with minor variations until the whole takes on a hypnotic, zen-like quality. “The Dress Looks Like On You” does so gently, mostly limiting its scope to banjo and acoustic guitar, only thinking to throw in something unexpected like a brief, cereal-box organ solo when the melody shifts in the bridge; conversely, “In The Devil’s Territory” swells to a mighty, Steve Reich-ian roar, its Theremin solo ably mimicking a boiling tea kettle ready to explode. Stevens isn’t shy about pushing this trope to its breaking point—witness “Sister”, which spends four minutes repeating the same instrumental melody, with “da, da, da’s” eventually accompanying it, growing louder and louder until it almost feels satirical, like a backing track from another Stevens, Cat, turned into a game show theme song. Then, abruptly, everything drops out, the song shifting to just acoustic guitar-and-voice for its last two minutes, retaining the same melody, only with proper lyrics.

Striking as Stevens’ approach to sound and song structure is throughout Seven Swans, his lyrical content more radically sets the record apart from scores of likeminded acoustic folkies. Stevens is a devout Christian, and while he shies away from labeling himself as a Christian artist, maintaining in multiple interviews that his intent is to separate his beliefs from his music, themes of faith in a higher power liberally flow throughout his work—rarely more explicitly than on this particular album. The title itself refers to a passage in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, while there are also songs about “Abraham” and “The Transfiguration”. And yet, while his faith and devotion feels pure, he never moralizes and rarely proselytizes—the closest he comes to doing so is his refrain of “He is the Lord!” in the title track, and even there he sounds a bit fearful and overwhelmed about what he’s exclaiming.

At times, his exploration of faith falls much closer to Sam Phillips‘ (although she’s far more skeptical than he’ll ever be), in that he acknowledges the complexity of such mysteries. “To Be Alone With You”, with its captivating melody and spare, acoustic guitar-and-voice setting, initially comes off like a straightforward love song, with Stevens offering, “I’d swim across Lake Michigan” in order to fulfill the titular goal. However, by the second verse, the subject shifts from first to second person: “You gave up a wife and a family / You gave your ghost / To be alone with me.” When this song was new to me, I puzzled over exactly whom Stevens was directing these words to. A lover? A friend or relative? Most likely, it’s a higher power, especially after he sings, “To be alone with me / You went up on a tree,” possibly referencing the Crucifixion. But then, the final line is, “I’ve never met a man who loved me.” Is Stevens singing about Jesus or God or a literal man of the flesh? My inclination leans towards the former, yet his careful, specific use of language here is fascinatingly steeped in ambiguity.

Similarly, “Size Too Small” ostensibly concerns being the best man at a best friend’s wedding, the title referring to an ill-fitting suit. At face value, that’s exactly what it’s about, the quiet, reverent-sounding organ coming in on the second verse serving the nuptials theme nicely. But in that second verse, Stevens sings, “Everything rises, going at it all / All the surprises in a size too small,” before asking, “Would you surprise us / in a size for all of me?” No longer merely tangible, “size” becomes a concept that could encompass any number of things, from persona to friendship to even faith. “I still know you, the best man,” he notes, before concluding, “I still owe you,” and you’re left uncertain as to whom exactly “you” is, only that it’s someone or something close to his heart. The same goes for the “He” in “He Woke Me Up Again” or the subject of “The Dress Looks Nice On You”, which seems to be a celebration of spiritual rather than physical beauty with repeated admonitions of “I can see a lot of life in you.”

Even when Stevens largely forgoes abstractions, his music still retains an aura of wonderment. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” rewrites the Flannery O’ Connor short story of that title from the point of view of its villain, known only as “The Misfit”. It’s a clever, followable conceit further made flesh by a hummable melody and the awesome way it opens up at the wordless, carousel twirl of a chorus, complete with a guitar riff that could’ve come from a Simon and Garfunkel chestnut. And yet, when his narrator switches from second to first person in the last verse, singing of Hell and his own grief, you can’t help but draw parallels to themes running through the bulk of the album. Stevens’ ability to incorporate both character and self until the line separating them blurs is a rare talent, one that further distinguishes him from your average singer-songwriter.

On subsequent albums, he’d continue honing that skill while hardly ever repeating himself. 2005’s Illinois picked up where Michigan left off but further expanded his aesthetic, often crossing Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music with homespun theatrical drama. It ended up a breakthrough beyond college radio confines, thanks to its typically moving, catchy-but-still-singular anthem “Chicago”. Five years later, he returned with The Age of Adz, a flummoxing, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt at almost a pop version of Enjoy Your Rabbit, getting lost in excess electronic effluvia and songs that pushed pass the six-minute-mark (or in one case, twenty-five!) Five years after that, Carrie and Lowell seemed like a full-circle, course-corrective return to an airier, more reverb-drenched take on Seven Swans’ acoustic folk, but with a new wrinkle: centering on his estranged mother’s death, Stevens dove feet-first into purely confessional songwriting, teeming with grief and inconsolable pain as deeply felt and nuanced as his earlier admissions of faith.

“Mystery of Love” didn’t win an Oscar, which is neither here nor there (losing to Phil Collins in this category back in 1999 didn’t have an adverse effect on Aimee Mann’s career.) Still, along with the stark “Visions of Gideon” (and its devastating placement at the end of Call Me By Your Name), it suggests that no matter which path Stevens takes next, he remains a wholly original and essential voice.

Up next: Obscurity Knocks.

“To Be Alone With You”:

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”: