After completing the first installment of his planned series of 50 records -- one album dedicated to each state in the U.S. -- indie folk overachiever Sufjan Stevens returned with Seven Swans, a collection of stripped-down, introspective musings on life, love, and faith that chart the geographic location of the heart and soul. Many of these themes were dealt with eloquently on Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, presenting the singer/multi-instrumentalist as a first-rate interpreter of the human condition, as well as a gifted musician. The 12 tracks on Swans yield the same bounty, but with a leaner arsenal, due to Stevens' sparse arrangements and production from Danielson Famile mastermind Daniel Smith. Fellow Famile members Elin, Megan, David, and Andrew -- who also appeared on The Great Lakes State -- lend their vocal and percussion talents to the mix, resulting in a surreal campfire environment that's part confessional and part processional. Beginning with the gorgeously titled "All the Trees in the Field Will Clap Their Hands," Stevens saunters out of the gate with nary an overdub to be heard, letting the banjo lead the parade, slowly picking up piano, percussion, and the angelic voices of Megan and Elin before disappearing over the hilltop. He channels Bert Jansch on the love song "The Dress Looks Nice on You" and Eric Matthews on "To Be Alone With You," striking a winning balance of '60s British folk and indie Americana. Like the Violent Femmes' seminal pseudo-Christian masterpiece, Hallowed Ground, Seven Swans treats religion with simplicity and sincerity, approaching the subject with an almost feverish peacefulness. "Abraham," "We Won't Need Legs to Stand," and "He Woke Me Up Again," with its fiery, overdriven organ, are all effective tomes of the singer's faith, but that faith can be tested. Stevens is quite aware of the dark, and no more so than on the Flannery O'Connor-inspired "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a first-person murder narrative that reveals a subtle current of menace only hinted at in the earlier portion of the record. Like faith, these songs require patience, as their almost mantra-like arcs take their time to fully form. By the time he reaches the spirited closer, "Transfiguration," an affirming take on the Gospels that reaches an almost Polyphonic Spree crescendo, the listener has no choice but to conform -- if only for the length of the record -- to the writer's unabashed spirituality, and at just under 45 minutes, it's an easy choice to make.
Seven Swans Review
by James Christopher Monger