What can you expect when an indie-pop, avant-garde-folk, electronica-producing multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter strips down his sound after recording the first in a series of 50 albums (one for each state quarter)? Surprisingly, more of the same, but with less fuss. Sufjan Stevens's breakout third album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, supplied listeners with more than just cute packaging and a shockingly long list of instruments following Stevens's name in the credits (about 20, depending on how you count, and whether or not you call "rhetoric" an instrument). While recording the 15 tracks of that album, Stevens also knocked off a dozen songs for his newest release, Seven Swans, which is not part of the state series. Despite all the size of its forerunner, Seven Swans maintains a minimal feel, with the music consisting almost entirely of Stevens's banjo and guitar playing.
While Stevens tucked away many of his instruments for this album, he also handed over the recording and production duties to Daniel Smith, head of the Danielson Famile. The change hasn't harmed Stevens's sound at all. Smith has mixed this album wonderfully, with each instrument sounding crisp and in its place. The vocals (by Stevens with backup from Elin and Megan Smith) come through soft, but clear, giving weight to the lyrical developments on Seven Swans.
Thematically, Stevens turns more inwards on this album. His last album unsurprisingly focused on Michigan culture, but Seven Swans reveals a greater concern with personal and spiritual relationships. The lyrics sometimes draw on both themes simultaneously, as in "To Be Alone with You", where the repetition of the title phrase could be sung to a distant lover or as a religious meditation. As on his last album, Stevens doesn't shy away from his Christianity. He follows "To Be Alone with You" with "Abraham", a slow tune about the Israelite patriarch and his test of faith. The disc's final track, "The Transfiguration", returns to Stevens's Biblical interests, recounting the synoptic gospels' tale with a steady banjo and hushed vocals before building on a trumpet melody and drum part. The singers close with "Lamb of God, we draw near ... Son of Man, turn your ear", ending the album with an uplifting crescendo.
Stevens draws his inspiration from sources other than the Bible, turning, for example, to Flannery O'Connor for his track "A Good Man Is Hard to Find". The lyrical content may not be a true match for O'Connor's story of the same name, but the minor chords and melancholy singing match the mood of O'Connor's sad fiction. Moments of the song sound like a penitent gunman, or maybe a guilty lover. After this track comes "He Woke Me up Again", in which one person wakes up another to sing after coming to some sudden realizations. The spirituality and the epiphanic content suggest that this Michigan-raised songwriter paid attention to his lessons on the Southern short story.
The discoveries continue on "Seven Swans", in which the birds in question are "a sign in the sky". The narrator goes through a Romantic passage of understanding, from faceless nature to symbolic Nature to a sublime recognition of the Lord, both fearful and inspiring, inviting and pursuing. As backup singers repeat "He is the Lord", the narrator frantically intones "Seven swans, seven swans, seven swans ..." The song closes on a note of awe and confusion, prefiguring the story of the disciples in "The Transfiguration", the next track.
Despite his penchant for lyrical complexity, Stevens works with fewer words per song on this album than on his previous disc, and even at his least voluble, Stevens is effective. "Sister" contains only singers' syllables, but the electric guitar and airy organ effects continue to build evocatively. The guitar playing on this track lacks consistency and professionalism, but it works, building and supporting the song until taking off behind a full vocal chorus. Then it all drops out for a folk song that's mellower, but in some ways as hopeful as the first two-thirds of the track.
Seven Swans easily does the job of securing Sufjan Stevens as one of those songwriters you must become familiar with. It does so not only by proving his ability to turn out consecutive incredible albums, but also by showing his fluency in another medium. Stevens has tried his hand at a variety of jobs and instruments now, and he's been successful. Most of all, though, Seven Swans reveals what Stevens truly is: an inventive songwriter with an abundance of spirit.