To call this ‘Christian Music’ seems a bit trite. True, Sufjan Stevens is a Christian, and the majority of his songs are about his faith, but I wouldn’t call this ‘Christian Music.’ That label carries far too much baggage (I’m thinking of unfortunate groups like Pax “like 311, only Jesus-centric!” 2:17), and it immediately inclines far too many to write off any music under its rubric. That being said, this is one of the most brilliant Christian musicians I have ever heard.
Sufjan Stevens (SOOF-yan STEE-vans) has made a career out of being an eccentric. He got his start collaborating with the Danielson Famile, a crazed, brilliant Christian family who would break people’s minds and musical boundaries with their experimentation. The fact that such amazing craziness could even get released on a Christian label initially spoke very highly of the industry. It has, alas, slid downhill since the late 90′s—though the last good Christian label, Tooth And Nail, still carries some innovative gems (Joy Electric, Mae, mewithoutyou, Starflyer 59), it has lost a lot of its initial indie spunk. Like most labels, as it gained recognition for quality acts and increasing album sales, its focus shifted onto demographically targeted album releases. The few super-creative bands left—Joy Electric and Starflyer 59, each headed by a Martin brother—are around still because they were original cuts on the label and still sell out shows.
Luckily, Sufjan signed onto Asthmatic Kitty, a gloriously small label devoted to the gloriously small town of Holland, Michigan. It makes sense: the release that gained Stevens widespread notoreity was Greetings from Michigan: the Great Lakes State. That album was a moving, epic work of love to his home state, warts-and-all. In theory, that was part one of a 50-album project, in which Stevens records an entire album about each state in the U.S. I’m not sure how he’ll get an entire album out of a state like Wyoming or Delaware, but that will be his job. Is it pretentious? Sure, but it’s brilliant—Sufjan recorded Michigan himself, and played over 20 instruments during its production. Doing that immediately put him on the map for many serious musicians, who were eager to see what he’d do next.
Along came Seven Swans. In a way, it is the opposite of the Michigan album—where he once was jubilant, Stevens is brooding; where he once was in love with people, Stevens is in love with God. Seven Swans is a quiet, intimate work, wholly concerned with Stevens’ relationship with God. We’re all lucky he didn’t fall into the standard Christian Musician trap of emotional over-wroughtness. Rather, Stevens at his most passionate is when he is more or less directly quoting Scripture: the word of God brings him out of his stupor, not any base temporal experiences.
This is unquestionably a good thing: the antics of Christian artists—the alter calls at Christian rock shows, the complete break in flow of the concert to describe the lead singer’s path out of the darkness, the “let’s rock it Jesus style” pathos, all serve to elevate Christian subculture above satire. It is melodramatic self-parody. Stevens ignores all the trappings of standard Christian music, and instead, like his mentor Daniel Smith (the mastermind behind the insane Danielson Famile), he moves into unorthodox musical territory while keeping his message recognizable to any Christian. It’s a treat.
Seven Swans opens with a plodding, questioning guitar/banjo pluck. “If I am alive this time next year/Will I have arrived in time to share?” Stevens’ voice is delicate, questing for whatever his message happens to be. As the piano joins in with the counter point, the darkness of this song begins to take shape—within moments, you hear strange, slightly off-key female vocals (“da da dadada da”). It’s the Danielson sisters, and they add a strange, alien quality to the song. “All the Trees of the Fields Will Clap Their Hands,” he tells us, referencing Jesus’ declaration that if Man will not praise him, the rocks will. As you get lost in the hypnotic chorus, “I am joining all my thoughts to You,” a cymbal is brushed. Suddenly the song is hopeful, playing with the spare kick and snare, combining all the disparate elements into this wonderful mélange that left me smiling.
It’s a pattern Stevens repeats in various forms on the rest of Seven Swans. He takes chord progressions, riffs, or melodies of an intermediate complexity, and combines them together, layering them through carefully sequenced introductions, until the final mixture is complex, challenging, and enrapturing. “I can see a lot of life in you,” Stevens whispers, as he cuts out all the clanking acoustic instruments to play a music-box. The strumming will pick up, things build again, and as a single instrument hits a major key the entire tenor of the song changes into exuberance and happiness.
The emotional manipulation of this pattern is difficult to overstate, but I love it. As the instruments swell in “In the Devil’s Territory,” or as the chorus slowly builds with the wailing electric guitar in “Sister,” the enormity of Stevens’ accomplishment becomes clear. This is a rare talent, one who doesn’t feel the need (like Meatloaf in “I’d Do Anything for Love) to show off with 8,000 instruments clamoring for attention. It takes enormous skill to make stripped acoustic compositions sound interesting, and this is done with such panache I’m left speechless.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a reference to the Flannery O’Connor book of the same name. Just as she could take Christian concepts and demonstrate their universality, so Stevens does as he explores her story from the view of the Misfit. A stilting, minor strum starts the downcast mood, and only deepens as the dark story progresses. That elusive drum makes a return, as does the Casio keyboard and girls from before. As always in this little universe, it is all vaguely off-setting, creating discomfort in part because of the deep, weighty lyrics, but also because the music is so damn complex.
“Seven Swans” and “The Transfiguration” continue this trend. The two are linked, offering different sides of the same coin (God). Both are epic songs, carrying the listener through movements, highs and lows, softness and jarring loudness, judgement and redemption. “Seven Swans” carries the fear-inspiring message, “I saw a sign in the sky/Seven horns, seven horns, seven horns/I heard a voice in my mind/I am Lord I am Lord I am Lord.” It goes on to relate the common biblical theme “you cannot run or hide from God,” a call to all of mankind to standup and be responsible for its choices. Of course, the music here, which is dramatic and ethereal, gives everything an extra punch.
“The Transfiguration” is a straightforward rendition of Christ’s last appearance before the eleven disciples as he ascends into heaven. It is a wonderfully hopeful note on which to end the record, and the easiest in which to see his Christianity on display. It is also his most honest, demonstrating the passion he has for his faith as much as his passion for his music. The slow build is briliant as well—tickling the ears with the elaborate rhythm on the banjo, and sudden interjecting of a deep base line, the cheesy keyboard “violin,” the subtle drumming. “Have no fear!” he shouts. “We are near!”
I certainly hope so. Brilliance like this cannot be ignored.