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splendid > reviews > 3/23/2004
Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens
Seven Swans
Sounds Familyre


Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "The Transfiguration"

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After two relatively obscure, often obtuse records, this delicate-voiced singer/songwriter released Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, an ambitious, breathtaking song cycle about his home state. He has bold, somewhat absurd plans to record another album for each and every one of the United States. Appearing a mere eight months after Michigan, this set apparently comprises songs that didn't fit that project. However, don't expect to find many leftovers or also-rans; Seven Swans plays like a stripped-down, less thematic counterpart to its predecessor. It's also strong enough in its own right to keep fans arguing for months over which album is better.

Although Seven Swans retains a few of Michigan's menagerie of woodwinds and organ-like keyboards, the primary instrument here is the banjo, but think of The Magnetic Fields rather than Bill Monroe. I'm tentative to call this a folk album (as I'm also hesitant to compare Stevens to someone like Elliott Smith or Badly Drawn Boy) because his music is so downright original. Even with somewhat scaled-down arrangements, he expertly builds his compositions layer by layer until they solidify with resonance and power.

For example, both "All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" and "In The Devil's Territory" kick off with a lone banjo that could've been lifted off an old English folk song. As Stevens's vocal, piano, percussion, female ba-da-das, and in the latter song, what sounds like a theremin (!) enter the picture one by one, the growing, ringing intensity hits you, albeit quietly. The unhurried "Sister", on the other hand, throws out the album's single electric guitar riff early on, only to have Stevens and members of the Danielson Famile wordlessly sing along to it for nearly four minutes until it becomes practically satirical (with a strong whiff of bubblegum). Then it smoothly shifts into an acoustic guitar-and-voice arrangement for its last two minutes.

Another guitar-and-voice number, "To Be Alone With You", is a hushed, tender little gem with a wonderfully ambiguous lyric. Initially, it seems like a touching but standard love song, but on the second verse Stevens turns the sentiment around to the point were it's uncertain as to whether the song is about an adulterous affair, a friendship, or even spiritual concerns. Throughout, lyrics about witches and dragons occasionally give way to more spiritual, historical and eventually biblical references ("Abraham"), culminating in the epic title track's striking dramatic flourishes. The album concludes with Stevens's most explicitly religion-themed song, "The Transfiguration", which also happens to be one of his most jubilant and stirring (no matter what your feelings are toward religion), building toward a masterful, childlike round of oboes, clarinets and multilayered vocals.

Recorded at producer Daniel Smith's home and rec room, Seven Swans is an intimate, beautiful work, whether it's rewriting a Flannery O'Connor short story from the murderer's point of view ("A Good Man Is Hard To Find") or examining the ever-shifting nature of any true friendship ("Size Too Small"). Stevens may never come close to completing his one-album-for-every-state undertaking, but he'll be fine if he keeps putting out exceptional albums like this one.



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