City Paper is not for tourists
How do you talk to an angel? If you’re Sufjan Stevens, you fix your gaze on the heavenly creature, flash your steeliest Michigander scowl, and say, “Could I have a word with your boss?” Stevens’ music may fit nicely into the largely secular world of sorta-folky indie rock, but his heart is firmly with Jesus. Maybe you missed that on last year’s terrific and widely hyped Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, the bittersweet salute to the Mitten that the multi-instrumentalist launched from his self-imposed exile in Brooklyn. I know I did. I was just so thrilled to hear my parents’ mailing address called out in “Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie” that I missed the real point of “Oh God, Where Are You Now?”: “There’s no other man/Who could raise the dead/So do what you can/To anoint my head.”
“Anoint”? What kind of indie rocker uses words like “anoint”? One-sided tirades against ex-girlfriends? Sure. Self-deprecating tales of thankless jobs? Go crazy. But bring some hellfire and brimstone into the mix, and your audience tends to get a little nervous. That’s because, for the most part, indie acolytes—even the sorta-folky ones—are former hardcore punk fans who discovered that bravado isn’t the only way to make music sound rousing. And their discomfort with religion isn’t easily explained away by linking it to hardcore’s think-for-yourself ethos.
I think this is why reviews of the indie scene’s most prominent bunch of believers, the Danielson Famile, tend to revolve around the group’s wackiness. It’s really far easier to focus on the fact that frontman Daniel Smith performs in a papier-mâché tree than the fact that he and his believe that God made himself manifest in his son, Jesus Christ, who will absolve you of your sins if you accept him as your personal savior, which is the only way you will achieve everlasting life in heaven. Well, Stevens, who often performs with the Danielsons, believes the same things as Smith—and to the best of my knowledge, he does not carry a fake tree with him when he’s on tour. There’s no line between his art and his faith, so if that makes you uncomfortable, by all means stop reading now.
Stevens’ Smith-produced Michigan follow-up, Seven Swans, opens with a lonely, burbling banjo and works itself into an expression of devotion that seems almost stalkerish. “I am joining all my thoughts to You,” Stevens declares, sounding a bit like Travis Bickle suiting up in front of the mirror. “And I’m preparing every part for You.” The music is spare and haunting, just that five-string, a contrapuntal piano, some multitracked female “duh-duh-duh”s, and Stevens’ breathy tenor. The lyrics are utterly without hubris—no “In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unmanned” bumper stickers for this guy. “Will I be invited to the sound?” he worries. “Will I be a part of what You’ve made?”
That’s as doubtful as Stevens gets—though it should be noted that the song, “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands,” has a bit of joyful-noise stuff mixed in between the lines, too. “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” is more typical, a simple statement of conviction accompanied by guitar and organ: “When we are dead/We all have wings/We won’t need legs to stand.” And “In the Devil’s Territory” is positively blustery, built around an insistent 3/4 rhythm that crashes against the speakers like lake water excited by a passing boat. “We stayed a long, long time,” Stevens warns Old Scratch. “To see you, to beat you.” And oh yeah: “I’m not afraid to die.” It’s actually kind of badass, and not just because the music sounds like some front-porch approximation of North Star–era Philip Glass.
In fact, Stevens almost always chooses minimal instrumentation. Most songs are built around banjo or guitar, a bit of piano, some economical percussion along the lines of a stick or a cymbal, and Stevens’ vocals, which bear more than a slight resemblance to the late Elliott Smith’s. Sisters Megan and Elin Smith from the Danielson Famile provide just-this-side-of-in-tune backing vocals, which often raise Stevens’ songs from dirges to celebrations. “He Woke Me Up Again,” for example, opens with that lonesome banjo again, and every time I hear it, I think Stevens is going to start singing, “A-a-april come she will.” But then a band jumps out of nowhere and the gals join in on “Halle-halle-hallelujah,” and damned if it doesn’t sound as celebratory as intended—whether you care about the song’s somewhat pedestrian symbolism of “being asleep” when God comes calling or not.
Bluntness is a problem with a lot of contemporary Christian music, of course, especially the rock stuff. And for most of Seven Swans, Stevens’ metaphors are resolutely uncomplicated: He presents himself as a rough-hewn but smooth-voiced apologist for his faith, albeit one quirky enough to marvel that “To be alone with me/You went up on a tree.” I’ll leave it to sociologists to explain why members of a rather ineffectual little subculture can feel such deep ambivalence toward the values of the society around them, but I’m expecting some of the same DIY-loving scribes who praised Michigan a year ago to start the Sufjan Stevens backlash any day now.
That goes double for any naysayers who happen to make it to Seven Swans’ Sunday-school-ready album-closer, “The Transfiguration”—not to mention its apocalyptic title track. On the latter, Stevens awakes to discover “a fire in the yard/All of the trees were in light…/My father burned into coal.” By the time he gets to seeing a sign in the sky and hearing “Seven horns, seven horns, seven horns,” it’s clear what kind of revelation he’s talking about: “He will take you/If you run/He will chase you/He is the Lord.” The title, best I can figure, is a reference to the “Seven swans a-swimming” in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which Catholics used as a stealth catechism when they were being persecuted in England. Each of the swans represented one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: piety, fortitude, and so forth.
That’s all heady stuff, and it makes me suspect Stevens’ just-folks vibe is ever so slightly an act. Still, there’s enough magic on Seven Swans to recommend it—even to the most holier-than-thou of indie-rock heathens. CP