Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans

Sufjan Stevens
Seven Swans

Sufjan Stevens’ excellent breakthrough album, 2003’s Michigan, announced as both a songwriter with inestimable talent and as a serious contender for the indie-folk crown. It also painted as sort of an odd duck: with that album – a concept album about Stevens’ home state – came the announcement that a similarly themed album for each of the other 49 states would follow. This meant that much of Stevens’ talent would likely be funneled into theme albums for many years to come. It was an intriguing proposition, to be sure, but one that also seemed impractical and threatened to pinhole Stevens as a novelty act.
Though Stevens has not backed off of his grandiose claims, Seven Swans suggests that he should strongly consider doing so. A collection of leftover material from the Michigan sessions, Seven Swans is sneakily brilliant album, one filled with daunting subject matter and disarmingly sweet arrangements. There’s nary a mention of the peninsulas that dominated Stevens’ focus on his breakthrough album. Instead, there are ruminations on family, aging, and, most importantly, religion.
For a collection of tossed-off material, Seven Swans is glowingly coherent. It may have much to do with Stevens’ subtle, understated arrangements as it does the subject matter, but Seven Swans never feels forced. It feels, remarkably, like it should have been an album all along. In many ways, it is easier to digest than Michigan. It contains none of that album’s overarching imagery, and the instrumentation, while still gorgeous, is noticeably more restrained – never does a song ride in on bells and chimes. Instead, they rely mostly on acoustic guitar and Stevens’ buttery vocals. He lays the folk whisper on thick, but it’s never annoying or contrived. Restrained electric guitars, banjos, and drums occasionally plunder the mix, but they only add to lush, intimate atmosphere Stevens cultivates.
Ultimately, discussing individual songs is ineffective, as Seven Swans gains momentum as a set of songs and lyrics and not on the strength of a few singles. There are highlights, however. “Sister” opens with a lazy acoustic strum, and a craggy, weak-kneed guitar solo carries the song for a few minutes, before Stevens breaks into some his best poetry: “What the water wants / is a hurricane / and sailboats to ride on its back.” It’s the only clear example of a song that might be too awkward for a “proper” album, but it’s one of Seven Swans‘ best tracks. The opener “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” is a restrained, harmonized hymn, and the track that follows, “The Dress Looks Nice on You” shines on comforting lyrical turns. “He Woke Me Up Again” carries the album’s best chorus, as well as its most full arrangement. “The Transfiguration” is an exploratory, reverent celebration. The subject matter will put off some, but the song closes the album on a poignant, affecting note.
Sufjan’s talent was on full display on Michigan, but it is Seven Swans that truly displays his limitless potential. Stevens does with a collection of extras something that eludes 99% of indie rock bands: he crafts a coherent, moving album that cements its place in listeners conscience.