Less than a year after establishing himself with Greetings
from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, Sufjan Stevens returns
with the introspective Seven Swans. Produced by Daniel Smith
of the Danielson Famile, Seven Swans is a much barer effort,
showcasing Stevens without any of his usual exorbitance (on
Michigan, Stevens is credited with playing nearly 20
instruments). This pared-down approach is a welcome change,
bringing greater lucidity to Stevens’s spiritually centered
lyrics. Seven Swans, tender from start to finish, reinforces
the honest voice of a first-rate talent.
The album is so honest, in fact, that it’s easy to ignore
the fact that this release isn’t just Sufjan and his banjo.
As on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, there’s a certain
vulnerability in Stevens’ bare-bones approach. The vocals are
delivered with a nonchalance and sincerity strong enough to
solidify an instant listener rapport. And like Pink Moon,
the sound is so captivating that it creates an entire world in
which all other sounds exist unnoticed.
Album opener “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their
Hands” is as poetic as its title implies. The repeated banjo
motif is layered with simple melody and a single-note piano figure,
and it builds with minimal drums and doubled female vocal
harmonies. After climaxing, the sound immediately fades into
“The Dress Looks Nice on You.” Similarly, this tune
begins with just Stevens and his guitar and crescendos to a
Stevens enjoys taking unadorned backdrops — usually banjo
or guitar — and building complex polyrhythmic structures.
This compositional approach works on each individual song and on
the album as a whole. Each song is crafted to gently expand on an
initial concept, and many times Stevens chooses to muse on certain
phrases. By the album’s conclusion — the quirky,
elevating “The Transfiguration” — something
intangible has happened. Stevens’s vocal presence seems all
the more present, even with intensified symphonic texturing.
Thematically, Stevens draws inspiration from various sources.
The Flannery O’Connor-inspired “A Good Man is Hard to
Find” reveals a dark unease inspired by the story of the same
name. The biblically referenced “Abraham” ponders the
Hebrew patriarch and his test of faith. Religion takes a backseat
to faith, and this, when it comes down to it, keeps the album from
This music has the power to transcend and inspire. It’s
honest, affirming, truthful, hurtful and beautiful. Stevens has
created a testament of faith so breathtaking in its simplicity that
we’re stuck wondering: What’s more to say?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars