Seven Swans

For the first few years of the new millennium, indie-rock’s ever-shifting center of gravity was always getting louder and more aggressive. Post-Radiohead morbidity, post-Pavement slackerdom, and various strains of expansively brainy post-rock all persisted, but they gradually ceded the spotlight to a garage rock craze headlined by the Strokes and the White Stripes, followed by a wave of gloomy and angular (always “angular”) post-punk bands led by Interpol, then a raucous dance-punk movement typified by the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Queens Of The Stone Age, the Dismemberment Plan, and Les Savy Fav were in the mix too, as were Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Trail Of Dead. Things got pretty jagged there for a while, so they were bound to smooth out again at some point. In fact, such a pendulum swing was brewing — quietly, of course — before the clatter had even subsided.

There was the whole O.C. thing, sure; Seth Cohen helped to popularize a version of indie-rock with its rough edges shaved off, which was becoming such a trendy aesthetic move that by Valentine’s Day 2004, the formerly feral Modest Mouse had released the optimistic and downright civilized “Float On.” But even before indie-rock got mushier, a number of even more delicate musical movements were congealing. As early as 2001, Norwegian duo Kings Of Convenience posited that Quiet Is The New Loud. In 2002, Sub Pop proved that thesis by releasing Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle, a collection of lo-fi lullabies that set off a small revolution of gentle folkies. That same year, Devendra Banhart released his first two full-lengths, The Charles C. Leary and Oh Me Oh My, and set about discovering a new generation of weird Americana artists like himself. Folk-tinged, solo-oriented indie acts like the Mountain Goats and Cat Power embraced hi-fi sounds and released some of their most resonant works. Acoustic covers of synthetic songs a la Jose Gonzalez’s take on the Knife’s “Heartbeats” were coming into vogue. Everyone from My Morning Jacket to Damien Rice to Animal Collective was beginning to explore wildly disparate approaches to folk music, some revolutionary, some old-fashioned. To top it off, in October 2003, Elliott Smith killed himself, triggering a renewed enthusiasm for hushed singer-songwriter fare as longtime fans broke out their copies of Elliott Smith and Either/Or. After years of rhetoric about getting the indie kids dancing, reflections on the inner life were coming back into vogue.

By the spring of 2004, folk music was suddenly a very big deal, be it Beam’s straight-laced sensitive stuff or the so-called “freak-folk” Banhart collected on his Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation. Golden Apples appeared that spring amidst the release of Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, and Banhart’s Rejoicing In The Hands — not long after Swedish balladeer Gonzalez’s late-2003 Veneer, and just before Kings Of Convenience returned with Riot On An Empty Street. As with the various rock trends, there were many more figures than it’s reasonable to mention here, many of which didn’t fit easily into categories. But if ever there was a poster boy for indie-rock’s folksy mellowing out, it was Sufjan Stevens, a meek, artful, banjo-toting Christian who embodied both the placid beauty of the beardos and the precocious quirk of freak-folk (albeit with distinctly less facial hair than either category would suggest). And on March 16, 2004 — a decade ago yesterday — he released his gentlest, most intimate album, a stirring collection of hymns, reflections, and notes of encouragement called Seven Swans.

Sufjan broke through less than a year before Seven Swans with Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State. That sprawling 66-minute set had folk components, but it also tended toward jazzy post-rock and twee choral arrangements and neoclassical composition. Writing about Michigan last year, I dubbed it the single most important album in what we’ve been calling indie’s “orchestral softening,” when the loosely defined genre essentially detached from its punk-rock roots and embraced a sound closer to chamber pop. Those symphonic flourishes and childlike backing vocals are still present on Seven Swans, but more often than not they’re stripped back to their bare essentials. The widescreen splendor that typified Michigan was mostly abandoned in favor of zooming in on Sufjan’s fragile vocals, docile fretwork, and bared heart. As a result, Seven Swans is the closest Sufjan ever came to straight-up folk music. If Michigan was his Christmas pageant, these were his prayers in solitude.

Musically, it’s a fascinating record. Drums are all but entirely absent, but in grand folk music tradition, fervent plinks and strums lend songs such as “In The Devil’s Territory” forward propulsion when flowing guitar figures won’t suffice. When drums do make a rare appearance, they pack a wallop either by addition (as when gorgeously eerie opener “All The Tree Of The Forest Will Clap Their Hands” achieves liftoff in its final seconds) or subtraction (when the drifting instrumental bombast of “Sister” turns out to be an extended intro and bottoms out into breathtaking quiet). Sufjan’s Danielson Famile pals pop up frequently, their background vocals evoking choirs of angels from prophetic visions. As was his trademark at the time, banjo is prevalent, but it’s plucked and strummed in singer-songwriter fashion rather than fits of high-speed twang, lending the songs qualities both earthy and otherworldly. He opts for acoustic guitar just as often, and its bright, chiming chords somehow manage to sound nearly as celestial. Purposeful bits of squealing saw, various organs, and electric guitar color the mood subtly and effectively, ceding the spotlight from the vocals and core instruments only when necessary to drive the drama.

And there’s plenty of drama to drive. If Seven Swans reins in its scope horizontally from Michigan’s statewide panorama to just Sufjan and his loved ones, vertically it gazes upward to infinity. This album is where Sufjan most directly addressed the Christian faith that permeates his early work, and given the hushed, minimal approach, it often sounds like an incredibly small, fragile human interacting warmly with an impossibly big, transcendent deity. Even the songs that don’t directly touch on God, such as the chaste flirtation “That Dress Looks Nice On You” and the brotherly encouragement “Size Too Small,” seem to be written in the presence of the divine. Usually the Christian overtones are more explicit, though, so it’s a small miracle that Seven Swans increased Sufjan’s burgeoning influence over indie-rock rather than relegating him back to Christian rock’s artistic fringe. It is a mesmerizing portrait of one man’s fellowship with God, one that welcomes listeners into very tricky, deeply personal territory without resorting to sales pitch or cliché. I’ve written at length about why Sufjan’s work resonates more widely than most overtly Christian music, and his gift for such communication was never more evident than on Seven Swans. It accomplishes a rare feat in modern music: Making Christianity’s offer of a personal friendship with the creator of the universe seem like the awe-inspiring proposition it should be.

Opener “All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” sets the scene with messianic imagery borrowed from Isaiah 55. “In The Devil’s Territory” pairs apocalyptic visions of a beast and dragon with Psalms’ stabilizing command to be still and know that God is sovereign over everything, even death. “Abraham” retells the Genesis narrative of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his long-promised son as a test of faith, only to intervene and save the boy at the last moment. There is “He Woke Me Up Again,” a wonderfully personal hymn, and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” which reframes material from Flannery O’Connor, another creative powerhouse able to weave Christian ideas into art in deftly approachable fashion. And there is the career highlight “To Be Alone With You,” a tender love song for the Lord that somehow sidesteps South Park’s clever satire about subbing “Jesus” for “baby” to score contemporary Christian hits. Like all Sufjan’s greatest spiritual meditations, it transcends cultural barriers and taps into utterly human longing — in this case, an incompleteness you’d literally go through Hell or high water to fulfill.

And that’s not even the best Seven Swans has to offer. Spiritually and artistically, the album peaks in its last two tracks, a pair of songs designed to portray God’s glory in all its mortifying power and dumbfounding beauty. The title track is a tale of apocalyptic terror, one in which the Christ returns to render judgment. Its explosive second half — built around the chilling lyric “He will take you/ If you run, He will chase you/ ’Cause He is the Lord!” — rests on a genius chord change that flips the sentiment from ominous to triumphant in an instant. I’ve never heard a piece of music so effectively conjure the repeated biblical trope of mere mortals cowering in the presence of God only to feel a rush of exhilaration when they realize they’ve been spared by grace. While “Seven Swans” captures the eerie and unsettling side of the supernatural, closing track “The Transfiguration” reframes the appearance of the glorified Christ as an occasion for pure joyous reverie. The song is a retelling of the biblical story in which Jesus leads his three closest friends to the mountaintop and reveals his shimmering divine brilliance — he literally starts glowing, heaven breaks open, and key Old Testament figures show up to say what’s up. Sufjan fleshes the arrangement out with a joyously ceremonious orchestral procession that matches the mood of the passage precisely. I’m not sure if there were cherubs there in that moment, but you can practically see them dancing here.

In the years since Seven Swans, Sufjan has moved farther and farther away from overt reflections on Christianity, and most of his music these days is a far cry from barebones folk-rock. His banjo is no longer his weapon of choice, and the clear-eyed spiritual contentment he projected throughout this record seems to have become a lot darker and cloudier. As such, Seven Swans is a one-of-a-kind statement from a one-of-a-kind artist. For someone like me, who actually believes in the Jesus portrayed here but who finds most of the media dedicated to him these days to be as bloated and inauthentic as the church culture it springs from, this album is a precious devotional and a reassurance that it’s still possible for Christian belief to inspire powerful creative activity. But even for many who have no connection to Christianity whatsoever, it remains a stirring collection of songs and an emblem for a very strange period in indie-rock. I’m not sure it ever would have caught so much attention had it not arrived in such a folk-friendly climate, but I am sure Sufjan seized that moment to deliver one of the era’s most enduring, evocative works. Its timing couldn’t have been better, but Seven Swans is timeless.

Comments (22)
  1. folkin’ A, what an album!

  2. Anyone else notice that the second half of The Transfiguration sounds a lot like Chicago?

    • I noticed it the first time I heard it. I have a feeling that he felt he could do more with the idea, so he implemented the melody into Chicago and voila: a masterpiece is born.

  3. Still my favourite album of his, it’s beautiful.

  4. My, that dress looks pretty on you…

  5. jimmer  |   Posted on Mar 17th +14

    “For someone like me, who actually believes in the Jesus portrayed here but who finds most of the media dedicated to him these days to be as bloated and inauthentic as the church culture it springs from, this album is a precious devotional and a reassurance that it’s still possible for Christian belief to inspire powerful creative activity.”

    i totally agree with each word. very well said.

  6. great piece, Chris. definitely appreciate the sentiment provided and the connection made to the richness of some of the imagery from which suf draws. maybe its the choruses and bells, but sufjan always reminds me of a wes anderson type of artist (or is it the other way around) in terms of attention to detail and richness of craft of artistry.

  7. does this make anyone else feel old

    • Yeah, but on the other hand, it’s a spot on the internet where someone mentioned religion and people aren’t ripping each other’s throats out in the comments section. It’s a fair trade.

  8. This is an album that grows on me everytime I listen to it, and one of my Sufjan’s favorites.

    Thanks to the first paragraph I just realized there was no “You Are Free turns 10″. Am I a little freak with this or the Cat Power album doesn’t deserve that Stereogum recognition?

  9. Anyone else agree that Sister is one of Sufjan’s top 5 best songs?

  10. I have so many memories attached to this magnificent album. What a great way to feel old today.

    • I don’t know… I have memories attached to it as well, but it just brings forth a melancholic dream of sadness and now I miss those times and those people.

  11. I can’t even talk about this album rationally. It came along at a point in my life when I felt very alone in the presence of other Christians. I couldn’t stand the thought of living without God, but the faith we shared seemed tainted by the culture. I felt like the Church was just another one of these machines we have for outsourcing the hard stuff to avoid pain. If I’d mention doubt or anxiety to my peers, let alone anyone in authority, they would behave like antibodies, looking for the fastest way to neutralize the virus. You know, read this book, try praying more, do you read your Bible everyday? It took me decades to figure out that if I’m going to provide any value to the body of believers, it’s as a person who can’t be medicated. It’s the cure or nothing, and the cure, as outlined by the basic tenets of the Christian faith, is fantastically improbable. Seeing how improbable a thing is and, irrationally, not being able to stop believing in it must be what faith is, right?

    Anyway, all that to say, I felt alone, I heard “Seven Swans” in all its apocalyptic joy and terror, and I didn’t feel alone anymore. I’m not saying it’s just me and Sufjan that “get it,” but Sufjan and I get it.

    • I was in something similar with my faith. I got to a point where Christianity was experientially a carrot on a stick. I went to a place that was recommended by a friend, and I’ll leave it nameless to avoid seeming like I’m plugging something. Long story short I had a “tutor” and he asked me to tell my story, and I was DREADING some trope fix-you-up answer. He caught me off guard and said “Yeah. Your life is absurd and God is frustrating. We can’t fix your problems, so that’s not what we try to do.” That was probably the most important thing I’ve ever heard. My faith, while undulating often violently, is something now that I consider “alive” and peace, at least my peace, turned out to be something I didn’t expect. I don’t begrudge the people who’ve tried to help, I think it’s a cultural thing in and outside the church, but like you’ve seen, it’s probably torturing and holding a lot of people back.

    • Whats interesting about his music, and Im not sure he’d agree, but, so often the organized religion ideology is that if you aren’t going to church you aren’t a member of the faith. And what Sufjan’s music conveys, whether or not he himself agrees, is the idea that God is all around. He exists in music, art, creativity, lyrics. The God Sufjan talks about is one who isn’t sitting around moaning about people taking his name in vain, or acting like homosexuality is something God gives a damn about. God is all around. And he’s here whether you believe in him or not. He doesn’t judge you if you don’t believe, doesn’t send you to hell, but he’s here reguardless.

      Sufjan gives the entire display. The God who takes his first girlfriend who dies of bone cancer in Casimir Pulaski, and praying to God doesn’t help save her. Sufjan is as confused and scared as we all would be in that situation. Yet then you have songs like Chicago, where God’s beauty is on display. Even a song like Abraham while describing something horrific is indescribably beautiful.

  12. dafs  |   Posted on Mar 17th +3

    I’d like to posit an odd theory: Sufjan Stevens doesn’t just love Jesus Christ. He is IN love with him.

    I get this idea from a variety of sources: Sufjan’s inability (or refusal) to pin down sexuality in his songs, especially on Illinois (Casimir Pulaski Day, Predatory Wasp). The tenderness of the lyrics, such as:
    “I’d swim across Lake Michigan
    I’d sell my shoes
    I’d give my body to be back again
    In the rest of the room
    To be alone with you”

    And how different this sounds than anything else that I’ve ever heard called a Christian album. These aren’t praise songs, a la “Awesome God” or “God of Wonder”. These are love songs.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m just projecting. I’ve been in the position of having both been in love with a really good male friend and having had that same friend save my life when I felt I wasn’t worth saving. If that isn’t a solid Christ metaphor, I don’t know what is.

    • He probably is, and that’s not weird. Being in love with the divine is the most authentic kind of praise there is.

  13. Sisyphus is out today. Coincidence?

  14. great article. Very influential and important album in my own life. The article hit the nail on the head. I wouldnt self identify as a Christian, but Sufjan’s power with words and description almost make me want to become a Christian. He portrays a God, completely out of step with much of what gets labeled Christianity these days. He may not understand God “he takes and he takes and he takes” as he says on Casimar Pulaski on Illinois. But the God he talks about is the one I want to believe in. I believe in God, and certainly a reason for that is the God that Sufjan talks about, his glory and his mystery. Sufjan has doubts and doesn’t understand God either. He’s as unsure as we all are, even if he is a proud Christian who wears it on his sleeve.

    Sufjan is one of the greatest lyricists of our generation and a treasure. Incredible way with words. When he dies, a whole generation will weep.
    Sometimes I only listen to this album during the holidays, but he has so many other Christmas albums in addition, this sounds good all year though.

    Listening to this album and reading the article makes me sad. I miss how indie rock used to be. The article mentions all of the albums that originally made me become an indie rock kid in the first place. Those years 2003-2007 were so magical. I like what indie rock has become in 2014, but theres something indescribably important and life changing about hearing Our Endless Numbered, or Good News For People, or Creek Drank The Cradle or even Michigan for the first time and having your entire fabric of your being completely altered and forever changed. My heart ACHES for those days. What was this new thing called “indie rock”? Who was this strange guy, whose name I couldnt pronounce? Legitimately makes me tear up…..

  15. Pretty cool album. I sort of hate the designation “Indie Rock” because it was just a new name for something that always existed- underground music on independent labels. This wave in the underground was better than decent and certainly refreshing after all the rehashed post post post post post grunge music that stood in for anything compelling for so many years. I really like Sufjan Stevens, but as time goes on I find this album to be a bit unlistenable, this and Michigan and Illinois. It’s like they’re too big, too church service, too consuming. Beautiful though.

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