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.