erasing clouds

The Passion of Sufjan Stevens and His Seven Swans

by paul jaissle

Religious passion manifests itself in different ways to different people. Some devote their lives to religious deeds or evangelical callings. Others may feel content watching the 700 Club each morning. Most devout religious followers can come off as extreme or overzealous to non-believers, forcing their beliefs on others which no one wants. But some deeply religious people are able to be so personally consumed with their faith that even the staunchest atheist will can be moved or inspired by their devotion.

This also applies to christian art. Christian “rock” has always been a bit of an embarassing movement: acts 5 years behind the current musical trends playing with their faith on their sleeves while at the same time trying desperately to look “cool”. Aside from from a few undergroung exceptions, christian “rock” as a genre is a less than inspiring label. One exception is the work of Sufjan Stevens, whose faith manages to be inspiring without being evangelical, and appealing to both like-minded followers and non-believers alike.

Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Sufjan was thanks to the glowing reviews for last year’s Greetings From Michigan, which earned all of the praise it received as well as its position on my (and everyone else’s) best of 2003 list. So I had high expectations for his follow-up, Seven Swans, which features new material as well as songs left of of Michigan. I was surprised to hear that not only was it as beautifully constructed as Michigan, but that as an album was more moving and satisfying than his previous album.

Saying that it is better than Greetings From Michigan isn’t exactly fair, though, since they are quite different beasts. Where Michigan was a sweeping sonic tour of my homestate, Seven Swans is a much more concise and cohesive collection. Gone are the pastoral instrumental passages that marked the previous album as well as its “everything but the kitchen sink” style production. Instead, Seven Swans features understated, banjo driven ballads that call to mind Michigan’s beautiful “Romulus”. These songs are much more personal and tender, and feature a religious devotion that was only hinted at on his previous album.

Again accompanied by members of Danielson Familie, Stevens is in top songwriting form on Seven Swans, spinning both deeply personal lyrics and professions of faith. “Size Too Small” and “Sister” are both songs about friends and family with ambigous targets that sound heartfelt and meaningful even without knowing the full story behind them. “Abraham” casts the biblical story into a tender ballad that can be appreciated by those unfamiliar with the character. This is the real coup Stevens achieves here: using his faith as a songwriting tool without slipping into evangelicism or forcing it in the listeners’ face. “He Woke Me Up Again” and “Seven Swans” make refrences to religion without exploiting his faith, and both “To Be Alone With You” and “The Dress Looks Nice On You” can easily be refering to either a loved one or Jesus.

Besides the effectiveness of the lyrics, the production here is powerful: starker and more somber than on Michigan, there are certain moments that resonate strongly thanks to shifts in feeling. When the drums kick in with cymbal swells and crashes at the end of “Seven Swans” it gives the song a depth that is inescapable. Or when electric organs and keyboards join the banjo centric sounds of “He Woke Me Up Again”, it is both a shock and a delight. Calling Sufjan Stevens a christian artist is a bit unfair: a more accurate description would be that he is a musician first, one who is driven by his faith to make music. Not in order to convert people or force it on other people, but he is driven by a deep calling that can inspire anyone who listens regardless of their belief in god. If anyone is offended by religion or faith, it would be hard for them to fault Sujan Stevens for his faith since it manifests itself in such moving and powerful music. It would take a pretty cold-hearted atheist to NOT sing along at the culmination of “The Transfiguration”.

Issue 21, March 2004

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