The Anniversary

Seven Swans Turns 20

Sounds Familyre
Sounds Familyre

Before Michigan, there was New Jersey. Sometimes, at the end of his workweek, Sufjan Stevens would take his songs and hop on a bus out of Brooklyn. He was living in New York’s buzziest borough at the dawn of the 2000s — if not the most exciting time for the city’s music scene, then maybe the most publicized. To be sure, Stevens wasn’t making post-punk or electroclash. (Though if you cock your head, his indietronica debut Enjoy Your Rabbit sounds like another Michigan-to-Brooklyn transplant act — Mahogany — folded in on itself). But in the years before Stevens began recording what would become Seven Swans, released 20 years ago this Saturday, acts like Devendra Banhart, Cat Power, and Herman Düne had made good-to-great albums of avant and indie folk in NYC. Nevertheless, there was Stevens, going to South Jersey station by station, forsaking Mecca for the New Jerusalem Recreation Center.

The sessions were, for him, both familiar and utterly new. Stevens was used to recording at home: tracking at his leisure, mulling over the takes, deciding what needed to be changed or added. (Generally, it seemed that something needed to be added.) But now, he was working on the turf and at the pace of his producer, Daniel Smith. Smith and Stevens were good friends; they had known each other for years at this point. For Stevens, these trips were as much about fellowship as recording. The NJRC was a true home studio — Daniel installed sheetrock in the ceiling so he could work while his mom ran the sewing machine — and after hanging with various Smiths all day, Stevens would do some tracking. The resulting recordings were unlike anything he had ever made. They were spare and intimate, unfussy yet dramatic. Most of all, they felt holy.

But every time he stepped back onto the bus, he left the tapes behind. Gradually, he started to have second thoughts about the project. “For a long time, these songs kind of just stayed on the tape and were never released,” he told Irish documentarian and radio DJ Paul McDermott in a 2004 interview. “They kind of represented a relationship that Daniel and I had — or that I had with his family… It did seem like it was something very sacred that wasn’t meant to be released to the public [laughs] and I don’t know what that is.” Additionally, Smith’s obligations as a musician/parent/producer/label owner meant that these sessions were basically ad-hoc, done whenever Smith could scrounge up the time. Without any recordings to puzzle over, Stevens started looking for a new puzzle. The conceptualist in him was aching to try something big; back in New York, he had started writing songs about rural families from his home state.

And so Michigan became the third Sufjan Stevens album. It established him as an indie-pop titan, the big-hearted band geek with ambitions as broad as the country whose stories he was telling. As Daniel Bromfeld noted last year, Michigan set Stevens atop a new wave of indie that prized earnest pageantry and proggy flourish over sardonicism and confrontational noise. Had he finished Seven Swans first, perhaps he would’ve been sorted as an acid-free freak-folker, who made an artistic leap by combining ecstasy with austerity. But after Michigan (and especially after 2005’s Illinois), Seven Swans was his “Christian album” — a well-received one, but ultimately a minor concept sandwiched between states.

But for me, this is still the most interesting thing he’s ever made. It marked a new peak in his abilities as a storyteller and composer. After two albums that overwhelmed with ideas and tones, Stevens was suddenly trusting the soft-spoken charisma and sharply observed details that would make him an alt-pop icon. Michigan and Illinois, in their Reichian restlessness and county-orchestra swell, are more overtly ambitious. But their pioneer energy hits differently now. At my most uncharitable, it sounds like chamber pop commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. The quieter moments have stuck around: “Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie,” “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out to Get Us!,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Vito’s Ordination Song.” Seven Swans is nothing but those moments, without the thick, cracked lens of America clouding the view.

But if the view is of the Christian God, is that better? As Chris put it in 2014, Seven Swans “often sounds like an incredibly small, fragile human interacting warmly with an impossibly big, transcendent deity.” He was bang on. Here, Stevens’ perception of the Almighty — magnificent, tender, unquestionable — is indistinguishable from that of anyone working in Contemporary Christian Music. But the way he and He approach each other, that’s different. On the cheery “He Woke Me Up Again,” God is a bedside visitor bearing great news and the voice of a squawking synth. The downturned ache of “To Be Alone With You” depicts the singer and the savior at opposite sides of a bed, giving things up to get incrementally closer to each other. “I’ve never known a man who loved me,” he confesses at the end. It is right in line with Protestant thinking — having been born a sinner, no act of love can be offered purely — but it also feels like a prelude to what Judee Sill once called the “sweet communion of a kiss.”

On Stevens’ travelog albums, he would denature his industrial spirit by acknowledging historical evils: greed, slavery, murder. But the faith expressed on Seven Swans is total and untroubled. The title track grabbed a lot of critics with its apocalyptic freak-folk vision, its Bible-adjacent images of dragons descending and trees bursting into flames. (Incidentally, there are no swans in the Bible, except in a word mistranslated twice in the King James Version, and even there it doesn’t signal anything more than “find something else to eat, buddy.”) As his father turns to coal and his mother crawls back into bed, the narrator offers a moral. “He will take you/ If you run/ He will chase you,” Stevens croaks over piano decay and banjo scratches, “for He is the Lord.” At this last bit, the drums kick in, the backing singers rend their garments, all is doom — until the banjo does a little corkscrew dive into a major piano chord. A happy ending, at the end of all things. “In The Devil’s Territory” is another tonal tightrope, a layered and lovely dispatch from behind enemy lines, with a praise chorus that has a little heresy, as a treat: “We stayed a long, long time/ To see you, to beat you.”

Twenty years ago, phrases like that nagged at me. They felt off. I had grown up a committed evangelical: Sunday night youth group, Bob Jones University textbooks, mission trips to Mexico and China, the whole deal. By the time Seven Swans dropped, I was nearly out of college, and had undergone a nearly complete schism with the church (was finally having sex). But I still knew the grammar. So I didn’t know how to sort the odd, sometimes stilted phrasing of this “Christian” album (“A cloud appeared/ In glory as an accolade,” “And when we receive/ We give a change at last”). Unearthly, for sure. But heavenly? For non-evangelical reviewers — normal people — Seven Swans sounded good but alien; to me, it was alien but good.

That Seven Swans was released at all is largely due to Daniel Smith, who also made music that was alien but good, albeit with a completely different aesthetic. (The album’s release may also be due to the fact that Stevens didn’t have the resources to mount a full Michigan tour.) Under the Danielson Famile moniker, Smith formed a collective before the concept was cool: Smith, his four younger siblings, plus spouses and friends. The Famile was the rare act that dwelt within the intersection of underground Christian music and high-concept indie rock. The Smiths grew up in a musical household that prized experimentation and discovery over pedagogy; their father Lenny was a housepainter and handyman who also wrote praise songs; one of those songs, “Our God Reigns,” became a global church standard in the ’70s.

Danielson’s songs were faith-based, but this was literally not their father’s praise music. As a kid, Daniel Smith had his mind fried in equal measure by the Beatles and Pere Ubu. (He is probably the only evangelical musician who’s ever copped to being influenced by Rapeman in a one-sheet.) And the music he made with as an adult veered between those poles of pop and provocation: sticky chants, alternate acoustic tunings and twisty song structures, topped by Smith’s hectoring falsetto. The Danielson Famile’s first few records sounded like — and I mean this in the best way possible — Mickey Mouse leading marches in a re-education rock camp. To the band’s chagrin, critics and indie heads tended to label them “outsider music,” like they were fanciful shut-ins, or a benign cult. (As to the latter, it probably didn’t help that they tended to perform in matching white nurses’ uniforms.) Stevens, though, saw them as role models. Here were Christian artists, fearlessly navigating a messy world, hearts painted onto their sleeves.

A few years earlier, he’d more or less done the NY-to-NJ journey in reverse. When he was an undergrad at Hope College — a Protestant liberal-arts school in Holland, Michigan — Stevens co-founded the coffeeshop alt-folk act Marzuki, named after his older brother (not in the band). “We played what might be described as confessional folk pop songs with faux-Celtic undertones,” Stevens recalled in 2009. “There were drones, and jigs, and songs about mice and songs about love and songs about God.” With such a can’t-miss portfolio, the group took a year off from college in order to make it. They got a New Jersey apartment, commuted to the Big Apple for menial jobs and cafe gigs, and recorded an EP. 1998’s No One Likes A Nervous Wreck sounded quite a bit like another confessional folk-pop act with faux-Celtic undertones that formed at a Midwestern Christian college: Jars Of Clay. (Each band also had a Haseltine in it, though I don’t know if there’s any relation.) After giving it an honest, fruitless go, Stevens and company slunk back to Michigan.

Upon graduating, Stevens returned to New York a wiser man, having chosen a stabler, more lucrative career than music: creative writing. He was living with three roommates in a one-bedroom apartment near Wall Street, pursuing a master’s at the New School. In his first year, he and one of those roommates, fellow Hope alumnus Melissa Herwaldt-Riches, organized a Christian art festival. They called it Christ-a-Go-Go, and they booked Danielson Famile to perform. Stevens and Daniel’s first meeting was a little fraught: every time Daniel looked for his benefactor, Stevens would appear in some other corner, like a shy ghost. But they became fast friends. Clean-cut, square-jawed, and prone to elaborate DIY concepts, they were two men in the mainstream of American Christian belief, if not American Christian music. Soon enough, Stevens was an auxiliary Famile member, contributing banjo and vocals in a set of scrubs with his name on the breast.

JL Aronson’s 2006 documentary Danielson: A Family Movie is a crucial view into this era, both for the band (who approach their indie-rock moment with the zeal and humility of seasoned missionaries) and for a pre-fame Stevens. Halfway through the film, Stevens and the Famile are kicking it at the Smiths’ Clarksboro homestead: playing stickball, enjoying a picnic. Lenny Smith and Stevens are in lawn chairs, chatting about families. “I happen to have a strong wife — didn’t have one of these contemporary women that wants, like, a baby and a half,” Lenny grins. “I had a real woman that wanted a crowd — and even now she loves crowds of people!” Stevens chuckles, then looks at his lap. A couple scenes later, it’s May 2002. Stevens’ opening for a solo Daniel (billed as Brother Danielson and the Nine Fruit Tree) at the Ottobar in Baltimore. In a black shirt and brown leather cap, he plays a gorgeous “To Be Alone With You,” essentially identical to the version on Seven Swans. Midway through the performance, Aronson cuts to a shot of Stevens, watching Smith play the club’s Baywatch pinball machine.

The songs on Seven Swans that don’t reference the Lord — the ones concerned with friends and family and lovers — I didn’t rate them properly. While making my slow break with the American evangelical church, I tended to treat the outsiders I met like research. They were my unwitting guides on how to think, how to joke, how to live. Even at their hungriest, Stevens’ narrators conducted themselves with the tender eye of the divine. In “The Dress Looks Nice On You,” his murmured compliments (“I can see a fireside turn blue/ I can see a lot of life in you”) sound like soothsaying. “Size Too Small” finds the singer in a snug tux, plaintively shooting his shot as the clock hits zeroes, reaching for the language of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane: “What if I put off my inheritance? Where is the best man?” The slow-burn devotional “Sister” trades on the display and restraint of power from its stunning opening couplet — “What the water wants is hurricanes/ And sailboats to ride on its back” — which Stevens withholds until more than four minutes have passed.

Though Stevens continued to record with the Smith family, as well as other acts on Daniel’s Sounds Familyre label, he never made an album as stark or immediate as Seven Swans again. It landed at a time when the things that made Danielson Famile an oddball draw were suddenly everywhere: in the Polyphonic Spree’s robe-clad posi-rock, Arcade Fire’s familial collectivism, Fiery Furnaces’ scrappy rock suites, Animal Collective’s shamanic yelps. Everything was possible, especially after the release of Illinois: Stevens donned angel wings and took his scrappy orchestra on the road at last, then plunged into rangy post-rock and electronica. The God of Seven Swans has never been far from Stevens’ mind, but the landscape of Seven Swans has never been more distant.

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