he book of Revelations alone has over thirty references to the number seven. Throughout the Bible, the number is used to denote completion and perfection. The root of the Hebrew word for the number seven means perfect, complete, or satisfied. The most well-known appearance of the number seven--the seven days of creation--speaks of the fullness of God’s work coming into being. The use of the number seven by Sufjan Stevens is not a flippant gesture. On the title track, he sings of seeing a revelation in the sky in the form of seven swans. The connotations that a swan conjures up are obvious, assigning the number seven to the already near-mythologically pure aquatic bird speaks volumes. Furthermore, to resurrect the extinct Southern vernacular expression, to “swan,” means to swear, to promise. By the title alone, one can be sure that Seven Swans is not exactly the working class lament that Greetings from Michigan was. Instead, it is a soft, spiritual oath, a contemplative record that both searches for a seven-like perfection, and seems to find it--in the Christian faith and in the family (familial and religious.)
Liberal critics were eager to praise Michigan as a political record. An addendum to Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s wonderfully edited documentary about the social and economic rise and fall of Flint, Michigan. What they failed to note was that Michigan placed no blame. Instead of a searing indictment of capitalism, black top-hatted fatcats, and laissez-faire government, it was a love letter. What made Michigan such an emotionally powerful record was that it didn’t address the problems of the Sufjan’s birth-state from a political point of view, but from a personal one. Sufjan didn’t treat the state as a state, he treated it like a deteriorating family member. It was a project of love if I’ve ever heard one. And his newest record is no different, but the focus of his love this time is on his Savior and the people who have aided him in his journey of faith.
Sounds Familyre records, headed by Daniel Smith (who produced Seven Swans) of the Danielson Famile is fast becoming one of the more interesting and important labels around. A loose conglomerate of faith-based artists (the most notable being Sixteen Horsepower lead singer David Eugene Edwards’ side project, Woven Hand), Sufjan’s melodic folk-pop with a Christian edge perfectly fits the label’s aesthetic. Seven Swans is a much less instrumentally complex record than Michigan, with much more emphasis placed on Sufjan’s banjo playing. What’s not gone, though, is Sufjan’s now trademark whispered, melancholy vocals and backup harmonies by Elin and Megan Smith. All the songs were written with those included on Michigan, but were recorded separately with Daniel Smith at his home and at his aptly named New Jerusalem Rec. Room in Clarksboro, NJ.
The fear for many when hearing that the songs on Seven Swans are essentially “outtakes” is that they will assume they are lackluster leftovers from the previous record. The only obvious outtake on Seven Swans is “To Be Alone With You,” but not because it is of a lower quality, but because it is much more akin, lyrically, to the songs on Michigan; it deals with poverty, divorce and possibly suicide, common Michigan threads. But most obviously it contains the opening line “I’d swim across Lake Michigan to sell you my shoes.” The rest of the songs give scant reference to the Great Lake state, but touch much more heavily on personal subjects.
The theme of family consumes the first half of the record. The impersonal pronouns of “you” and “he” abound, but so do the frequent references to kin. On “In the Devil’s Territory,” over waves of steady banjo picking and lilting piano chords, Sufjan sings of signs, Beasts, witches, torrid dragons, and stealing his father’s shoes--a sin he seems to equate with those of the dragons and witches. Sufjan, who was supposedly orphaned on the doorstep of the Stevens family in a milk crate, was taken in by the couple and christened after the storybook Armenian Sufi dragon slayer. Sufjan’s own storybook beginning haunts his lyrics. On “Sister” he speaks of a female sibling in Detroit, but adds “somewhere” before the city name. “He Woke Me Up Again,” a joyous celebration of rekindled faith tells of Sufjan’s father (parental or spiritual?) awaking him with a scream of “Hallelujah! Holy is the sound!”
“He Woke Me Up Again”’s theme of physical and spiritual rejuvenation appropriately leads into the epic last songs which deal most explicitly with Sufjan’s faith. The title track builds into a full, booming, chorus of “He is the Lord!” which is preceded with the warning that he (the Lord) will chase you if you run from him. Recently confronted with the question of whether his God is a malevolent New Testament avenger, Sufjan responded with a chuckle, and the explanation that God is chasing you like a lover, not a stalker. This sort of mindset perfectly sums of Sufjan’s view of life: though we may suffer, we need only stand still and allow God to wrap his arms around us and help guide us through the thicket. The closer, “The Transfiguration” tells the story of Jesus’ revealing of his divinity to his disciples atop a mountain. The bouncing joyfulness of the song mirrors its message of being anxious for the prophecy of the Lord to be fulfilled. The messianic prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but the last prophecy is on the horizon: “We draw near!” the chorus sings.
While Seven Swans is possibly a better record than Michigan, with such an overtly Christian sheen, it will be interesting to see if the liberal music press gives it as much praise as it deserves--as much praise as it radiates.
Reviewed by: Gentry Boeckel
Reviewed on: 2004-03-12