Sufjan Stevens

Seven Swans

(Sounds Familyre; 2004)

By Garin Pirnia | 20 November 2004

Although Greetings from Michigan was an homage to his home state, prolific singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Seven Swans, is not, as you might guess, a veneration to swans. Michigan was a sprawling and enthused record, but with his fourth album — the second he’s released in less than a year — Stevens has faltered a little as he continues to rely primarily on his predictably somber, folksy arrangements to narrate his stories about the Devil, dragons and the supernatural. Pastoral themes run rampant throughout the album and at times it might even be misconstrued as a gospel album, as many of its songs approach another of Stevens’ passions: religion. Several songs are directly dedicated to God, the Father and other religious figures, while other tracks casually incorporate similar imagery.

“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands," like several of Swans other songs, finds Stevens integrating the strong devices of naturalism and personification of inanimate objects such as trees and clouds. Elin and Megan Smith, who contributed vocals to Michigan, make another appearance on the track, beautifully enhancing Stevens’ soft timbre. The next track, by far the best on the disc, is the melodic “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” on which he sings, “I can see you a lot of life in you/I can see a lot of bright in you,” accompanied with the aforementioned banjo and germane synth hooks. However, such straightforward and personal statements aren’t commonplace on the record, as he usually aims for more grandiose themes; on “In the Devil’s Territory,” for instance, he sings of the supernatural, anchored by a bewitching, noisy bridge.

Even with the range of subject matters on Seven Swans, Stevens still returns to mentioning his home state. “Sister,” for example, is a middling track that is almost entirely instrumental, merely consisting of guitar until Sufjan ends the track with a pastoral, romantic afterthought: “What the water wants is hurricanes and sailboats to ride on its back/ What the water wants is sun kiss/land to run into and back… I have a sister somewhere in Detroit.” The themes coalesce very naturally.

The rest of the album voyages into the religious themes that Stevens has always embraced; “Abraham,” “He Woke Me Up Again” and the title track, which mentions a foreboding sign of seven swans flying in the sky and the Lord in pursuit, are rife with passionate imagery. With the final song, “Transfiguration,” the album comes full circle as Stevens tells a story of Elijah and Moses; “Lamb of God, we draw near/ lost in a cloud, the sign, son of man, son of God/ lost in a cloud a voice, have no fear.” Rarely do artists making music like Stevens approach their faith with such unabashed creative fervor.

Seven Swans also marks the first time Stevens has not engineered his own work (Daniel Smith did all the work this time around) and the results certainly seem to reflect what might otherwise seem like an inconsequential step back. This is still an auspicious album from a talented artist, but it lacks the punch and magic that Michigan had, and several of the songs come off sounding detrimentally uniform and indistinguishable. That said, Stevens’ once again manages to bring us into his work and, in effect, his world — one in which God speaks, trees clap, and dragons strike back. It’s just too bad the music on Seven Swans isn’t nearly as consistently intriguing and unique as his lyrics.