Sunday Night Journal — August 5, 2007
Three Words About Pornography

Music of the Week — August 5, 2007

Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans

I could hardly have gone further in the opposite direction from last week’s artists, goth-metal Tristania, than this gentle, intimate, and explicitly Christian album. Yet I’ve been listening to both these albums to the exclusion of almost everything else for the past couple of weeks, well past the three mandatory hearings for a Music of the Week selection, and liking each of them more and more. Both speak to spiritual questions, Tristania indirectly and negatively, Sufjan Stevens directly and positively.

Stevens is an artist who’s been on my to-be-investigated list for quite some time. He’s a favorite of the indie-rock set, and although I consider that a positive recommendation it isn’t unqualified: more than once I’ve found that an artist who comes on a wave of applause from that corner has brilliant moments but doesn’t hold up for an entire album, or for more than one album.

I have an uneasy feeling that I may not be listening to Seven Swans seven years from now, but I really can’t point to any particular reason, except possibly the fact that the lyrics on many of the songs are rather on the slight side. If the simpler and less coherent ones are supposed to be symbolically weighty, it isn’t working for me. This is very spare, almost minimal, music, entirely exposing each song. Under these conditions every word needs to count, and too often they don’t.

That disposes of the negatives; let’s proceed to the positives. The album is full of simple yet striking melodies, supported by beautiful and slightly quirky arrangements, mostly acoustic: banjo, guitar, a Farfisa-sounding organ, piano, occasional drums and bass. The banjo is used very imaginatively, so that you’re almost not aware at first that it is a banjo; one rarely speaks of introspective or intimate banjo music, but there’s some of that here. Some very sweet and subtle female vocal touches are provided by members of another group high on my must-hear-more list, the Danielson Famile. These play a significant role in imparting a winningly innocent quality to the whole production.

More than half of these songs are exquisite, and even those that seem comparatively less interesting have something that ends up grabbing me, like the wordless chorus of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which seems to have some connection with the Flannery O’Connor story though I couldn’t say exactly what. I think my favorite song is “In the Devil’s Territory,” which creates an image in my mind of something rising slowly to the light. If I had written this a few days ago I would have said that the last song, “The Transfiguration,” didn’t really do much for me, but on my last hearing it finally sank in, and now I think it’s one of the better tracks.

By the way, the high regard in which Stevens’ work in general and this album in particular are held by critics and fans at large explodes the mistaken belief under which some Christians in the arts labor: that secular audiences will not hear them. If you come up with something good, they’ll listen. Read the review at the Seven Swans eMusic page, not as far as I know written by a Christian, and notice the comment from the atheist at the end of the subscriber reviews.



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