It wouldn’t be Record Store Day unless we came home with something for Kelly. And while it isn’t an official Record Store Day exclusive release, we did buy it with her in mind…on Record Store Day…so in my mind, it still counts. So now we’re listening to ‘Seven Swans‘ by Sufjan Stevens.
Sufjan is a very complex and versatile dude, but we have really gravitated to his plucky, banjo-driven folk music of which this album is another fine example.
Released in March of 2004, the album includes songs about Christian spiritual themes, figures such as Abraham, and Christ’s Transfiguration.
Did I mention her can get pretty deep too?
In fact, the album has been described as sounding “like Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school” and that’s a pretty apt description if you ask me.
The album was released after completing the first installment of his planned series of 50 records – one album dedicated to each state in the U.S. – Stevens returned with this album instead, 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. Afterwards he returned to the 50 States concept with the ‘Come On Feel the Illinoise‘, meaning that this album is book-ended by two of the best albums I heard all last year.
Actually, make that three because ‘Carrie & Lowell‘ (released in 2015) was pretty fucking amazing as well.
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, over-driven 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.
Oh, and it comes on a pretty marbled green vinyl with a cool bonus 7″ single as well. HRH is also pleased that it has a bird on the cover as well because, well, that’s thing here now so everybody wins!
Happy Record Store Day indeed.