Hearing Sufjan Stevens’ new album Seven Swans has reminded me of the reason we all listen to music in the first place. Charles Bukowski put it much better than I could in his poem “Rain”, in which an orchestra keeps playing music through a thunderstorm while all the attendees, save one, rush for cover. They all stare back at the remaining man and wonder what his problem is. He just wants to hear the music. The reason that I am reminded of these things is for the simple fact that many people will find peripheral reasons to either diss or outright dismiss this album.
Most etiquette guides will tell you that the two major topics of discussion to avoid in polite circles are politics and religion. I can confess that such exchanges have always gone badly for me. I have made my own decisions in life regarding organized religion and I live with those decisions. Any discussions I have with people who are entrenched in their religion end up going in one particular direction, the one where I’m told that I’m going to hell. I always ponder whether it would be worth it to let them know that if I don’t believe in their organization’s version of a Supreme Being, how I could possibly believe in their version of hell.
On the other hand, art, and specifically music, has always been an approved subject of conversation. So what happens when the music that is being discussed involves either politics or religion? As far as the former topic is concerned, countless bands have done alright and have not suffered too greatly the wrath of the public, save the Dixie Chicks, and even they are still selling millions of records. Some bands have even made careers out of the topic (i.e. Rage Against the Machine). Other than a handful of so-called `Christian’ bands, such as Creed, Jars of Clay, DC Talk, and Sixpence None the Richer, not many bands have taken the topic of religion and made it popular, much less palatable.
Enter an unlikely indie / folk musician, Sufjan Stevens. Having gained critical success with his third album, Greetings from Michigan, an album based on another unlikely subject for a theme album, that being his home state, Sufjan is now tackling the taboo on his fourth long-player Seven Swans. Miraculously, Stevens somehow finds a balance between staying true to his belief and keeping it from being overbearing. When it comes right down to it, Seven Swans is a masterpiece of modern music and it deserves everyone’s attention. In fact, this agnostic will go as far as to say that if Sufjan Stevens sang the hymns at my church growing up, I might never have left.
A multi-instrumentalist, Stevens plays a majority of the sounds on each of his albums, but on this CD, he gets some help from label mates The Danielson Family, whose member Daniel Smith produced the record. One of the standout instruments that appear in numerous songs is the banjo, which seems to be in the midst of a revival right now, appearing also on Beulah’s album Yoko and Iron & Wine’s releases. The `Southern’ sound that is created by it recalls Bonnie `Prince’ Billy and more so the aforementioned Iron & Wine. It is the banjo that introduces the first song, “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”. It is equal parts Sam Beam and Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” until the female background singers join in.
Arguably the best song on the album, one of the secular ones, “The Dress Looks Nice on You” is a simple love poem, which shows that there is really something for every taste on this record. A trio of religious songs ensues in “In the Devil’s Territory”, “To Be Alone With You”, and “Abraham”. All are extraordinarily pretty songs, especially “To Be Alone With You”. His conviction is evident in the song and you should simply read the lyrics to yourself without music to see how powerful they truly are. Sufjan has created a, if you’ll forgive the term, miraculous album that is both painstaking and personal, and I feel a vast amount of respect for his going out on this limb.
The song “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” hints at strains of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” musically, and in an odd way lyrically also. While “Legs” is a short poem about accepting God and rising to his Heaven with wings, “Street Spirit” is about impending death, the acceptance of it, and as the lyrics say, immersing one’s soul in love.
The title of a Flannery O’Connor short story and collection arises in the song “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, evoking more of that Southern spirit. How did this young man from Michigan get such a “below the Mason-Dixon line” sound?
All art lends itself to interpretation. Most artists will say that once the work is finished, and is in the hands, eyes, and ears of the public, it no longer belongs to them; it belongs to the people and is up to them to interpret how they will. If you try really hard, every song on the album is about Sufjan’s faith. If you try really hard, every song on the album is about secular love. To enjoy the beauty of Sufjan Steven’s music, voice, and lyrics, you don’t need to try very hard at all.
Iron and Wine- The Sea & the Rhythm
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy- I See a Darkness
Johnny Cash- God or My Mother’s Hymn Book