I consider Sufjan Stevens a deity. I’m (kind of) serious. One of the most “religious” experiences of my life occurred last December during his Christmas show when he performed the epic “Christmas Unicorn” followed by “Chicago” during his encore. When I think about that night, everything runs together in a sensory-overload fashion to remind me of something I knew all along — that Sufjan Stevens is a god. This is why when I approached writing about him, the rituals of ancient Hebrew scribes came to mind. For example: did you know that when Hebrew scribes copied Scripture, they had to pray and wash their hands before each session, then praying and singing every word as they wrote it? Anytime they had to write the word “Jehovah” (God), the scribes would wash the pen and their entire bodies in a stream of running water so as not to pollute the holiness of their deity. I decided against singing each word and showering every time I typed his name, and I’m not a tithing member of the Church of Sufjan (only because they don’t exist — do they exist?!), but I did handle with an (almost) spiritual sense of devotion. Although, in the end, words really are “futile devices” (sorry).
Obviously the music of Sufjan Stevens has been a very meaningful part of my life, and I listen to him nearly every day. I have a playlist of my favorite songs and it’s almost always my go-to, but from time to time, I’ll obsess over a specific album as a whole. Lately it’s been Seven Swans — Sufjan’s collection of raw, mostly acoustic, spiritual compositions. Here’s why I’m re-addicted:
1) Because I love Sufjan Stevens. His brilliant musicianship aside, I adore Sufjan as a person despite his being somewhat enigmatic outside of his art (awaiting a biography!). From what I can gather, Sufjan is endlessly quirky and severely sensitive, and comes off as the iconic “nerdy” character with lots of feelings and brains who we all grow to adore by the end of the story. Sufjan’s attention to detail, artistic integrity, willingness to be supremely weird/his refusal to be ordinary and his affinity for all things simultaneously beautiful and bizarre make him a true original. Sounds like the perfect human being, right? You already know my theory is it’s because he’s not one (SO obviously a divine being).
2) Style. I’ve said this countless times — I’m a sucker for good folk music that strips itself down to a few basic elements while still retaining its potency. Seven Swans is a perfect example of such being a mainly acoustic record in which electronic elements only appear on a few tracks. Keyboards ease in on the bridge of “That Dress Looks Nice on You,” and electronic fuzz contributes to the cinematic build-up in “Sister”; but the majority of the instrumentation is bare bones acoustic guitar and banjo, and it’s still incredible.
Much of Seven Swans is signature Sufjan in terms of style — simple on the surface, complex upon further scrutiny. Maintaining a flair for storybook melodies, he often embeds subtle pop hooks that delicately delve until becoming a mainstay in your mind. Seven Swans’ pastoral, uncomplicated aesthetic is obviously intentional and complementary to the subject matter because we all know Sufjan is highly capable of complex, dizzying, densely-textured experimentalism (especially pronounced in Age of Adz). Here though, Sufjan allows the tracks to lay bare, and yet they still bloat with potency. Perhaps Seven Swans is indelible due not just to its threadbare yet piercing nature, but also because of its unabashed confessional content.
3) Content. My dad is a Baptist preacher, so the Seven Swans vernacular is highly familiar to me. Sufjan and I share in a private Christian school education and along with a religious upbringing comes, among many other things, the displeasure of being subjected to mainstream Christian music. When it comes to religious music, there are (in my mind) two general categories: modern and sacred. The former is the kind that’s trying to sell you something via highly derivative pop music that claims to be “progressive” yet always sounds at least five years behind everything on Top 40 radio. It’s a positive message wrapped in plastic or styrofoam (“Sustainable materials are just a part of that global warming hoax! Jesus is coming back long before that!” But I digress…).
No, Seven Swans falls under the latter category, sacred, which is based on genuine veneration and awe. As we listen to Sufjan sing, it quickly becomes obvious that we’re being let in on sincere stories and conversations between himself and God or others he cares for very deeply. The way in which he handles the subject matter, with great fragility and feeling, compels us to also feel something. His specific spiritual beliefs are not what stick, but rather the universally relatable themes such as love and devotion, and in the end, we feel as though we’ve been privy to something rather intimate and honest. There’s no selling or plastic here, and that is wholly refreshing.
4) Specific favorite moments:
The endearing sense of devotion with which he sings on “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands.” Especially “And I am joining all my thoughts to you / And I’m preparing every part for you.” The backing choir chimes in, beginning their prevalence for the entirety of the record.
The passionate, shy urgency of “To Be Alone With You” — old-fashioned romanticism.
How he totally captures the creepiness of the Biblical story of “Abraham” in one line: “When the angel came, you had raised your arm.” I have always struggled with the idea that God would ask Abraham to murder his son as a test of his faith, but even more so that Abraham was fully prepared to go through with it had an angel not stopped him and provided an alternative sacrifice. I mean — what?? Sufjan takes this creepy story and drapes a sheen of naivete and beauty over it (much like he does with “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”) making for a tragically compelling, gorgeous song.
“Sister” is easily my favorite track from Seven Swans. It’s basically a six-minute Sufjan-in-a-can. It’s a simple, melodic structure at first that builds in intensity and texture until coming to a cinematic climax followed by simplistic yet sincere lyrics. The intro lasts for more than four of the six minutes, but is so worth the wait for the words that follow, which are some of my favorite lyrics ever. “Sister” is both experimental and endearing, and that is exactly what we love him for.
On “He Woke Me Up Again,” the theatrical organs and choral repetitions of “Hallelujah…” each time after he sings “…woke me up again to say.”
The title track, “Seven Swans,” is easily one of the most eerie songs in existence. When he starts in on the “He is the Lord!” section, it stops me dead every time. So ominous, so memorable.
Sufjan Stevens released his second Christmas album last December. The five-disc Silver & Gold is pretty much the opposite of Seven Swans in terms of taking the sacred seriously. It’s an extremely Sufjan-esque take on the ridiculousness that is Christmastime and the commercialism thereof, and it is incredible.
“Mr. Frosty Man” is Sufjan’s completely awesome garage rock ode to Frosty. “Ding-a-ling-a-ring” is insanely catchy and way too fun as a sing-a-long, and “Christmas In The Room” was on repeat for being one of the sweetest songs ever written (still makes me tear up). Then there’s the mind-blowing 12 and a half-minute “Christmas Unicorn” which is both hilarious and brilliant. I can’t fully explain it’s genius, but the magic begins with the repetitions of “I’m a Christmas Unicorn, you’re a Christmas Unicorn.” LISTEN TO IT — especially if you’re an “Impossible Soul” fan. The Silver & Gold box set came complete with temporary tattoos, stickers, and a Christmas sing-a-long tour. If you went to one of those shows then you know it was the show of all shows on the earth — there were inflatable unicorns, costumes and a giant Christmas carol wheel. So ridiculous, I can’t even…
Also, much to his fans’ great delight, he’s recently become quite active in the land of Internet via his Tumblr, releasing old demos and posting random weird/wonderful content. It’s the best thing.
1) Elliott Smith – Someone said Seven Swans sounded “like Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday School,” which is so right on.
2) Bright Eyes – Conor Oberst is an indie icon also known for his confessional, smart folk musings.
3) The Daredevil Christopher Wright – Their first album, In Deference to a Broken Back, is immediately reminiscent of Sufjan and absolutely amazing. Listen to it ASAP. I love this band.
4) Any Asthmatic Kitty artist. Sufjan Stevens co-founded this label with his stepfather, and most of its bands have a signature colorful eccentric streak. Bands like The Welcome Wagon, Half-Handed Cloud, and My Brightest Diamond all make extremely genuine, beautiful, weird music.
5) Deerhoof – Bizarre, erratic pop music, and a band that Sufjan loves and has collaborated with.
6) Princess Music – Brilliant, lush classical pop that is going to woo you senseless. Sounds like the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen.