April 29, 2004

Test Spin: Sufjan Stevens

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Nowadays, most people like their religion on the side, in a little manageable container for us to dip into as much or as little as we wish. On his latest release, Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens pours a generous helping of religion on his well-honed, spaciously rich, folksy texture. Amidst delicate banjo plucks, lilting, angelic choruses, and the occasional spark of an electrified refrain, patches of spirituality sprout from his compositions.

At first, it may feel offsetting to hear allusions to the story of Abraham or The Transfiguration of Christ in pop music. But as Sufjan’s unusual orchestration begins to exert its charming warmth, Seven Swans’s earnestness begins to dispel the cloud of suspicion surrounding its religious doctrine.

With the help of labelmates and believers the Danielson Famile, Sufjan recounts his musings on parables, faith, love, and pain through a more stripped-down aesthetic than that of the state-centered epic, Greetings From Michigan. By curtailing his iconic, multilayered production, Seven Swans takes a deliberately slower and focused approach, a backdrop from which moments of folk fervor shine all the more brightly. “Sister” uses this technique to near perfection, as an undulating electric guitar riff stands out all the more from the acoustic backing and soft vocal harmonies.

Though some might be thrown by the religiosity of Seven Swans, the album’s production and songwriting stands in a realm of its own. After all, music can be a spiritual experience, whether implicit or explicit.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer