Sufjan Stevens, born on July 1, 1975 in Detroit, is a folk-pop-country singer/songwriter. His music is characterised by his (and sometimes other Illinoisemakers) fragile voice.
Seven Swans (2004; recorded at the New Jerusalem Rec Room, Clarksboro, New Jersey) is his fourth album. Its Christian themes and simple sound make this recording one of Sufjan basic albums. Although the artist refuses to speak about his religion in public, Seven Swans makes you feel like someone wants to share his deeper feelings, because of its open, natural, honest and child-like sound.
I recommend this album to everyone who is searching for pure music, straight from the heart. At a glance, Sufjan’s music may sound chaotic (especially his other albums, though Seven Swans is quite easy-listening), but after a few listens, you may hear a totally different sound.
Its chaotic impression comes from the great number of different instruments, playing different pieces, at the same time (not supporting each other). But when you break through this (and for some people it may actually be a barrier), Sufjan music proves to be a companion in both the hard as well as the good times.
I wrote this review to make people realise that there is a great source of positive energy waiting to be discovered. So start listening!
Sufjan Stevens — Seven Swans: Track-by-track review
1. “All The Trees Of The Fields Will Clap Their Hands”
When the CD player is switched on and the first banjo clangs reach your ears, there is always some astonishment about the beauty: no matter how often you play Seven Swans, the beginning is unsurpassed and it never bores!
Another special characteristic: whether summer or winter, day or night, healthy or sick, drunk or totally sober — no matter the state you’re in — this first track always fits the moment. There isn’t much to say about this song in a technical sense, just prepare for Seven Swans — sit back and relax!
2. “The Dress Looks Nice On You”
With only his guitar and an organ to guide Sufjan’s hushing voice, “The Dress Looks Nice On You” makes you feel like a young child. It is very likely that when you like this song, you’ll like the entire album.
It’s a little bit slow, but during the chorus, it speeds up. Very pleasant to hear, and I like it mostly because of the intimate sound. It’s like talking with an old friend about, well… quite intimate things.
The singer once told the story of this song during a concert in Belgium:
“So when we moved up north we lived here in Pickerall Lake. We took I-75, me and my 2 brothers and my 3 sisters, and we also took a Pomeranian dog — my brother had a California king snake, and we had a dog called a bouvier, bouveitus flanders, which, is a, as you probably know, a French sheep-herding dog. They’re very beautiful, it was my mother’s favourite dog.
“So we all went in the station wagon, we moved up here, into my grandmother’s home. It was a summer home, so it was kind of cold in the winter, ’cause the winters up north are very terrible. Anyway, that’s where I went to middle school and high school, up there, out of the city, in the country.
“And there wasn’t a lot going on. It felt like going back in time, from moving out of Detroit up there. So there wasn’t a lot to do until I hit puberty. And then I met my friend Robin, and she was 18 years old and we went to the same high school. She was a senior and I was a freshman, my first year there. She was really nice, and she had these really big glasses which were popular then, tortoise-shell types. And she had curly hair, which was popular then as well.
“And anyway, she had a car, which was really kind of cool. Uh, so I was climbing the social ladder, ’cause I had a girlfriend with a car. And I didn’t even have a summer job or my driver’s license. So we would go driving around sometimes and we’d go to the lakes and the rivers, sometimes we’d go fishing, sometimes we’d go waterskiing.
“But what she liked to do the best was to go shopping. And there wasn’t much shopping up here. ‘Cause there’s just, uh, K-mart from the last song. There’s a lot of K-mart and strip malls and things like that. So we would go down to this, which was the nearest kind of big city, called Travis City, and she had collected these porcelain plates, they were collector’s plates, and they had famous people on them, she had one with Mickey Mouse and she had one with Muhammed Ali. She had one with Princess Diana, and things like that.
“So she would go down to the mall, ’cause there was a store that just had those, she would get those. And she also bought clothing. She bought a lot of dresses, so she tried on this one, and she came out of the dressing room and she says, ‘Well what do you think of this?’ I was only 14, and I wasn’t very mature or gracious yet. I didn’t know how to open doors for women or buy flowers and things like that.
“So I said, ‘Well, it looks kind of complicated.’ Because this was a time when fashion was really going downhill, and people were mixing kind of paisley and floral and tweed and denim and things like that, so it was just all over the place, ’cause I think at that time Madonna was kind of like the fashion role model for most women.
“So anyway, uh, she said, ‘No you’re supposed to say, “The dress looks nice on you.”‘ So, that’s what she told me. She taught me a lot of things about that, about how to talk to a woman and what to say and what not to say. So years later I figured this out, and that’s when I wrote this song about that.”
3. “In The Devil’s Territory”
This track was once used in a commercial for a Dutch bank. Its distinct banjo playing makes this track sound a bit different from the rest of Seven Swans.
The theme of “In The Devil’s Territory” has to do with the return of Jesus to Earth. Like the title says, we now live on Earth in a harsh and bitter world, but someday, after a “long long time,” we will meet Him “at last.” It has a somewhat ominous atmosphere, but considering the subject… it is not that strange.
4. “To Be Alone With You”
In my opinion, “To Be Alone With You” is one of the best tracks on this album. Sufjans’ singing is… well, words cannot express the beauty. It’s the soundtrack of The O.C. (an American teen drama series).
Again Sufjan succeeds in linking a biblical theme to a secular interpretation. The line “I’ve never known a man who loved me” is, for some people, reason to believe that this track is about gay people. But considering the rest of the lyrics, it becomes clear that it’s about Christ. (Read: all other interpretations are good as well, there is no right or wrong!)
You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
This song features only Sufjan and his acoustic guitar.
Another all-acoustic song, “Abraham” is probably the most peaceful on this album.
For me there is no deeper meaning. Just listening to it is extremely relaxing; it makes you feel very safe, like a child with his or her favourite teddy bear (excuse me for my persisting child metaphors). Its slow speed only adds to the feelings of security.
“Sister” is not my favourite track, maybe because of its location on Seven Swans (the contrast of coming directly after “Abraham”), or maybe because of the track itself.
Whichever, the mourning sound doesn’t grab me. The first two-thirds are instrumental, and the last part is filled up with Sufjan’s singing accompanied by his acoustic guitar. That last part is quite ok, but still, it’s not my fav.
7. “A Size Too Small”
This one comes as a bright, sunny change in tone after the moaning track “Sister”. Again, I found some explanation from Sufjan himself, from the very same concert as “The Dress Looks Nice On You” above:
“The next year, Robin got a little smart, and she thought, well, she was interested in getting a husband, and she thought, ‘Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place.’
“We just decided to be friends, and she put her name in this computer dating service, they match you up according to your personality. This was really popular back then too. It wasn’t internet dating, because we didn’t quite have the internet back then, but it was, you go into this office and they match you up with your likes and your dislikes.
“So that’s how she met her fiancĂ© Rob. So, which I was very happy for her, but it all happened so fast — within five months she was engaged and she was married and she invited me to the wedding, to be in the wedding. So, that was fun.
“You know it wasn’t so much that I was devastated, but, you know, when you’re 14 it’s just all sorts of chemical things going on in your body, and you don’t really know how to process everything. So, I found it really hilarious, but also kind of really devastating too, so I was kind of a little bi-polar at the time. But I went to the wedding, and, uh, it was very surreal. It was very hot. There was no air-conditioning in the church, and it was August. My tuxedo was a little too tight.
“This song is called ‘A Size Too Small.'”
Despite Sufjan’s bi-polar feelings, “A Size Too Small” makes you feel rather happy. The sped-up sound really adds to this. Furthermore, the overall pitch is higher compared to the rest of the songs on Seven Swans.
At the end, this track makes me a little bit emotional. I like this music since a very dear friend of mine told me of it. (Well, for me, most of Seven Swans is special, because of the personal sound. This was not the first album I ever heard from Sufjan, actually. The first was Illinois. And because of that, it took about six months to get used to the Sufjan’s sound. When I heard Seven Swans I was flabbergasted, and knew there was nothing in the world that could surpass this music.)
What does this have to do with my friend? “A Size Too Small” makes me feel like I still “owe” something to this very dear friend, because he made me discover one of the most important things of the last several years!
For me, Sufjan’s music mostly makes me feel secure, happy, sometimes emotional, but never sad (no matter how sad a song’s subject). The beauty of his pure voice, (and sometimes the Illinoisemakers’, although they are not represented on this album) and the phenomenal music surrounding all this, always compensates for this melancholy.
8. “We Won’t Need Legs To Stand”
The gentle guitar loop, taking you through the song, creates a somewhat floating feeling. It sounds a bit liquid to me. Very beautiful! While listening it’s quite easy to let your thoughts flow.
When compared to “A Size Too Small,” “We Won’t Need Legs To Stand” has a similar speed, and it sounds a little bit like that track. However, this one is more melancholic.
Instruments: Organ and guitar, and there is also a little choir (which comes in at the end).
The theme: When we die, Sufjan says, we go to Heaven. And when we’re in Heaven, we won’t need legs to stand.
For me, this is one of my favourites on Seven Swans because it is linked throghout by a “sound-cord” (read: the guitar played in the background takes you through the different phases of the song). This “sound-cord” makes the song very suited for dreaming…
9. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
A very nice one! (Again!)
There is a connection with the short story also called A Good Man Is Hard To Find, written by Flannery O’Conner.
Despite its grim subject matter, the song really sounds great. It may be this track that best illustrates what I was saying about the previous songs: Sufjan manages to create a great song, no matter what the subject.
It starts off like many songs on Seven Swans, but later on it develops into a track with a specific sound. I can’t really describe that sound, though; maybe ‘sinister’ is the best way to describe it, although that’s not the end of the discussion.
10. “He Woke Me Up Again”
This song is about a man who wakes up (in a religious way). He abandons his old way of life, and starts living the Christian way.
After the banjo start, the organ at the back of this song really adds to the special atmosphere. It becomes a little ceremonial, and a full feast. “He Woke Me Up” is, for me, similar to other tracks on the album: not a very special song, it just makes you happy!
By itself, it’s ok, but not extraordinary. The pace, compared to “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” is a little bit higher. It’s less acoustic as well.
11. “Seven Swans”
The title song is about Jesus’ second coming. It has a very strong climax, and during that climax it becomes clear that there is no place to hide from God.
When the volume is turned up, you may feel that there really is, physically, no place to hide from God. “Seven Swans” is very persuasive! It is both relaxing and imposing, depending on the state you’re in while listening. I think it is one of the best songs on the album, and really reveals Sufjan’s intentions.
The banjo fits very well in this very special track. And I think that “Seven Swans” may differ from all the other tracks because it combines its specific sound, straight lyrics (no stories to tell, like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”), and climax.
To me, “Seven Swans” is gorgeous: the pace, the intimate sound (during the first four minutes), the lyrics, its persuasiveness… it all comes together to create this great track. And the ominous end, despite its serious nature, makes me feel safe (and I admire the heavenly choir).
12. “The Transfiguration”
Finally, “The Transfiguration.” This song is strongly related to the Bible’s Luke 9:28-36:
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.
As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
Two men, Moses and Elijah,
appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.
A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.
While listening, you may experience the same energy, joy and astonishment as the three disciples experienced at the mountain. A very special song, this may be the most positive track of the entire album.
At the beginning, the banjo starts of with a crude sound, then Sufjan comes in, and after a little while, when several instruments join in, as well as a woman (and a little choir), it is one big celebration.
Such a feast! Sufjan manages to create a song which is great for everyone (even very atheistic people). This song ends Seven Swans with a lot of positive energy. There couldn’t be a better way of ending a great album!
Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens
“All The Trees Of The Fields Will Clap Their Hands”
“The Dress Looks Nice On You”
“In The Devil’s Territory”
“To Be Alone With You”
“A Size Too Small”
“We Won’t Need Legs To Stand”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
“He Woke Me Up Again”