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Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Seven Swans’ Turns 20


Earlier than Michigan, there was New Jersey. Generally, on the finish of his workweek, Sufjan Stevens would take his songs and hop on a bus out of Brooklyn. He was residing in New York’s buzziest borough on the daybreak of the 2000s — if not essentially the most thrilling time for the town’s music scene, then perhaps essentially the most publicized. To make certain, Stevens wasn’t making post-punk or electroclash. (Although in the event you cock your head, his indietronica debut Get pleasure from Your Rabbit appears like one other Michigan-to-Brooklyn transplant act — Mahogany — folded in on itself). However within the years earlier than Sufjan started recording what would turn out to be Seven Swans, launched 20 years in the past this Saturday, acts like Devendra Banhart, Cat Energy, and Herman Düne had made good-to-great albums of avant and indie people in NYC. However, there was Sufjan, going to South Jersey station by station, forsaking Mecca for the New Jerusalem Recreation Heart.

The periods had been, for him, each acquainted and totally new. Stevens was used to recording at dwelling: monitoring at his leisure, mulling over the takes, deciding what wanted to be modified or added. (Usually, it appeared that one thing wanted to be added.) However now, he was engaged on the turf and on the tempo of his producer, Daniel Smith. Smith and Stevens had been good associates; they’d identified one another for years at this level. For Sufjan, these journeys had been as a lot about fellowship as recording. The NJRC was a real dwelling studio — Daniel put in sheetrock within the ceiling so he might work whereas his mother ran the stitching machine — and after hanging with numerous Smiths all day, Sufjan would do some monitoring. The ensuing recordings had been in contrast to something he had ever made. They had been spare and intimate, unfussy but dramatic. Most of all, they felt holy.

However each time he stepped again onto the bus, he left the tapes behind. Progressively, he began to have second ideas in regards to the challenge. “For a very long time, these songs sort of simply stayed on the tape and had been by no means launched,” he instructed Irish documentarian and radio DJ Paul McDermott in a 2004 interview. “They sort of represented a relationship that Daniel and I had — or that I had together with his household… It did appear to be it was one thing very sacred that wasn’t meant to be launched to the general public [laughs] and I don’t know what that’s”. Moreover, Smith’s obligations as a musician/father or mother/producer/label proprietor meant that these periods had been mainly ad-hoc, finished every time Smith might scrounge up the time. With none recordings to puzzle over, Stevens began in search of a brand new puzzle. The conceptualist in him was aching to attempt one thing large; again in New York, he had began writing songs about rural households from his dwelling state.

And so Michigan turned the third Sufjan Stevens album. It established him as an indie-pop titan, the big-hearted band geek with ambitions as broad because the nation whose tales he was telling. As Daniel Bromfeld famous final 12 months, Michigan set Sufjan atop a brand new wave of indie that prized earnest pageantry and proggy flourish over sardonicism and confrontational noise. Had he completed Seven Swans first, maybe he would’ve been sorted as an acid-free freak-folker, who made an inventive leap by combining ecstasy with austerity. However after Michigan (and particularly after 2005’s Illinois), Seven Swans was his “Christian album” — a well-received one, however in the end a minor idea sandwiched between states.

However for me, that is nonetheless essentially the most attention-grabbing factor he’s ever made. It marked a brand new peak in his skills as a storyteller and composer. After two albums that overwhelmed with concepts and tones, Sufjan was immediately trusting the soft-spoken charisma and sharply noticed particulars that will make him an alt-pop icon. Michigan and Illinois, of their Reichian restlessness and county-orchestra swell, are extra overtly formidable. However their pioneer vitality hits in another way now. At my most uncharitable, it appears like chamber pop commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. The quieter moments have caught round: “Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie,” “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out to Get Us!,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Vito’s Ordination Music”. Seven Swans is nothing however these moments, with out the thick, cracked lens of America clouding the view.

But when the view is of the Christian God, is that higher? As Chris put it in 2014, Seven Swans “usually appears like an extremely small, fragile human interacting warmly with an impossibly large, transcendent deity.” He was bang on. Right here, Stevens’ notion of the Almighty — magnificent, tender, unquestionable — is indistinguishable from that of anybody working in Modern Christian Music. However the best way he and He method one another, that’s completely different. On the cheery “He Woke Me Up Once more,” God is a bedside customer bearing nice information and the voice of a squawking synth. The downturned ache of “To Be Alone With You” depicts the singer and the savior at reverse sides of a mattress, giving issues as much as get incrementally nearer to one another. “I’ve by no means identified a person who beloved me,” he confesses on the finish. It’s proper in step with Protestant considering — having been born a sinner, no act of affection could be supplied purely — nevertheless it additionally appears like a prelude to what Judee Sill as soon as known as the “candy communion of a kiss”.

On Sufjan’s travelog albums, he would denature his industrial spirit by acknowledging historic evils: greed, slavery, homicide. However the religion expressed on Seven Swans is whole and untroubled. The title observe grabbed numerous critics with its apocalyptic freak-folk imaginative and prescient, its Bible-adjacent photographs of dragons descending and bushes bursting into flames. (By the way, there are not any swans within the Bible, besides in a phrase mistranslated twice within the King James Model, and even there it doesn’t sign something greater than “discover one thing else to eat, buddy.”) As his father turns to coal and his mom crawls again into mattress, the narrator presents an ethical. “He’ll take you/ If you happen to run/ He’ll chase you,” Stevens croaks over piano decay and banjo scratches, “for He’s the Lord.” At this final bit, the drums kick in, the backing singers rend their clothes, all is doom — till the banjo does a bit corkscrew dive into a significant piano chord. A contented ending, on the finish of all issues. “In The Satan’s Territory” is one other tonal tightrope, a layered and wonderful dispatch from behind enemy strains, with a reward refrain that has a bit heresy, as a deal with: “We stayed an extended, very long time/ To see you, to beat you”.

Twenty years in the past, phrases like that nagged at me. They felt off. I had grown up a dedicated evangelical: Sunday evening youth group, Bob Jones College textbooks, mission journeys to Mexico and China, the entire deal. By the point Seven Swans dropped, I used to be practically out of school, and had undergone an almost full schism with the church (was lastly having intercourse). However I nonetheless knew the grammar. So I didn’t know easy methods to kind the odd, generally stilted phrasing of this “Christian” album (“A cloud appeared/ In glory as an accolade,” “And after we obtain/ We give a change eventually”). Unearthly, for certain. However heavenly? For non-evangelical reviewers — regular folks — Seven Swans sounded good however alien; to me, it was alien however good.

That Seven Swans was launched in any respect is essentially attributable to Daniel Smith, who additionally made music that was alien however good, albeit with a totally completely different aesthetic. (The album’s launch may additionally be attributable to the truth that Stevens didn’t have the sources to mount a full Michigan tour.) Below the Danielson Famile moniker, Smith shaped a collective earlier than the idea was cool: Smith, his 4 youthful siblings, plus spouses and associates. The Famile was the uncommon act that dwelt throughout the intersection of underground Christian music and high-concept indie rock. The Smiths grew up in a musical family that prized experimentation and discovery over pedagogy; their father Lenny was a housepainter and handyman who additionally wrote reward songs; a type of songs, “Our God Reigns,” turned a worldwide church commonplace within the ’70s.

Danielson’s songs had been faith-based, however this was actually not their father’s reward music. As a child, Daniel Smith had his thoughts fried in equal measure by the Beatles and Pere Ubu. (He’s most likely the one evangelical musician who’s ever copped to being influenced by Rapeman in a one-sheet.) And the music he made with as an grownup veered between these poles of pop and provocation: sticky chants, alternate acoustic tunings and twisty track constructions, topped by Smith’s hectoring falsetto. The Danielson Famile’s first few data seemed like — and I imply this in the easiest way attainable — Mickey Mouse main marches in a re-education rock camp. To the band’s chagrin, critics and indie heads tended to label them “outsider music,” like they had been fanciful shut-ins, or a benign cult. (As to the latter, it most likely didn’t assist that they tended to carry out in matching white nurses’ uniforms.) Sufjan, although, noticed them as position fashions. Right here had been Christian artists, fearlessly navigating a messy world, hearts painted onto their sleeves.

A number of years earlier, he’d roughly finished the NY-to-NJ journey in reverse. When he was an undergrad at Hope School — a Protestant liberal-arts college in Holland, Michigan — Stevens co-founded the coffeeshop alt-folk act Marzuki, named after his older brother (not within the band). “We performed what may be described as confessional people pop songs with faux-Celtic undertones,” Sufjan recalled in 2009. “There have been drones, and jigs, and songs about mice and songs about love and songs about God.” With such a can’t-miss portfolio, the group took a 12 months off from faculty so as to make it. They acquired a New Jersey condo, commuted to the Massive Apple for menial jobs and cafe gigs, and recorded an EP. 1998’s No One Likes A Nervous Wreck sounded fairly a bit like one other confessional folk-pop act with faux-Celtic undertones that shaped at a Midwestern Christian faculty: Jars Of Clay. (Every band additionally had a Haseltine in it, although I don’t know if there’s any relation.) After giving it an sincere, fruitless go, Stevens and firm slunk again to Michigan.

Upon graduating, Sufjan returned to New York a wiser man, having chosen a stabler, extra profitable profession than music: inventive writing. He was residing with three roommates in a one-bedroom condo close to Wall Avenue, pursuing a grasp’s on the New Faculty. In his first 12 months, he and a type of roommates, fellow Hope alumnus Melissa Herwaldt-Riches, organized a Christian artwork competition. They known as it Christ-a-Go-Go, they usually booked Danielson Famile to carry out. Sufjan and Daniel’s first assembly was a bit fraught: each time Daniel regarded for his benefactor, Stevens would seem in another nook, like a shy ghost. However they turned quick associates. Clear-cut, square-jawed, and liable to elaborate DIY ideas, they had been two males within the mainstream of American Christian perception, if not American Christian music. Quickly sufficient, Sufjan was an auxiliary Famile member, contributing banjo and vocals in a set of scrubs together with his identify on the breast.

JL Aronson’s 2006 documentary Danielson: A Household Film is an important view into this period, each for the band (who method their indie-rock second with the zeal and humility of seasoned missionaries) and for a pre-fame Sufjan. Midway by means of the movie, Stevens and the Famile are kicking it on the Smiths’ Clarksboro homestead: enjoying stickball, having fun with a picnic. Lenny Smith and Sufjan are in garden chairs, chatting about households. “I occur to have a powerful spouse — didn’t have one in all these up to date girls that wishes, like, a child and a half,” Lenny grins. “I had an actual lady that wished a crowd — and even now she loves crowds of individuals!” Stevens chuckles, then appears at his lap. A pair scenes later, it’s Might 2002. Sufjan’s opening for a solo Daniel (billed as Brother Danielson and the Nine Fruit Tree) on the Ottobar in Baltimore. In a black shirt and brown leather-based cap, he performs a stunning “To Be Alone With You,” primarily similar to the model on Seven Swans. Halfway by means of the efficiency, Aronson cuts to a shot of Stevens, watching Smith play the membership’s Baywatch pinball machine.

The songs on Seven Swans that don’t reference the Lord — those involved with family and friends and lovers — I didn’t price them correctly. Whereas making my gradual break with the American evangelical church, I tended to deal with the outsiders I met like analysis. They had been my unwitting guides on easy methods to assume, easy methods to joke, easy methods to stay. Even at their hungriest, Stevens’ narrators carried out themselves with the tender eye of the divine. In “The Costume Appears to be like Good On You,” his murmured compliments (“I can see a hearth flip blue/ I can see numerous life in you”) sound like soothsaying. “Dimension Too Small” finds the singer in a cosy tux, plaintively taking pictures his shot because the clock hits zeroes, reaching for the language of Christ within the backyard of Gethsemane: “What if I postpone my inheritance? The place is the most effective man?” The slow-burn devotional “Sister” trades on the show and restraint of energy from its gorgeous opening couplet — “What the water needs is hurricanes/ And sailboats to journey on its again” — which Stevens withholds till greater than 4 minutes have handed.

Although Stevens continued to file with the Smith household, in addition to different acts on Daniel’s Sounds Familyre label, he by no means made an album as stark or instant as Seven Swans once more. It landed at a time when the issues that made Danielson Famile an oddball draw had been immediately all over the place: within the Polyphonic Spree’s robe-clad posi-rock, Arcade Hearth’s familial collectivism, Fiery Furnaces’ scrappy rock suites, Animal Collective’s shamanic yelps. All the things was attainable, particularly after the discharge of Illinois: Stevens donned angel wings and took his scrappy orchestra on the highway eventually, then plunged into rangy post-rock and electronica. The God of Seven Swans has by no means been removed from Sufjan’s thoughts, however the panorama of Seven Swans has by no means been extra distant.




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