Minimal music always contains a bit of a homey touch. There’s something about the tone of a banjo or an acoustic guitar that makes any recording sound live, right in front of your face. Maybe it’s the pure simplicity of the music and maybe it’s just the tone of the instrument, but the home-grown feel of simple music may be the greatest aspect of it. It’s odd that I say this in a Sufjan Stevens review, but Seven Swans is not like his other efforts in any way. Seven Swans drops out the multiple instruments, for the most part, and trades for guitar or banjo driven songs. Sufjan proves a versatile artist in this manner, because Seven Swans is a fantastic album.
Seven Swans shows a new side of Sufjan. Instead of the state-inspired albums, Seven Swans takes a much more meaningful approach, inspired by religion. While his other efforts threw out religious allusions, this album quotes directly from the Bible and tells biblical stories, such as Christ’s transfiguration or the story of Abraham. Despite the musical qualities of the album, Seven Swans feels epic due to the subject matter. However, as told by the song titles, not every song is entirely religious. The Dress Looks Nice On You
takes a much more personal spin. The song starts with just acoustic guitar, Sufjan’s typical quiet voice, and later, a banjo. Sufjan’s catchy vocal hooks along with a superb acoustic guitar pattern make this song excellent. Also, a banjo joins in on the fun for a bit of an instrumental interlude. Sufjan tracks his voice multiple times to make some superb harmonies. The Dress Looks Nice on You
may be some of Sufjan’s finest work, showing that he doesn’t need huge orchestral arrangements to make a great song. The Dress Looks Nice on You is merely a slight diversion from the real focus of the album, shown in full form on Abraham
. Another short 2 and a half minute affair, the song begins with a quiet acoustic guitar pattern. The lyrics simply tell the story of Abraham in an incredibly melancholic manner. Sufjan hushes out the thought of Abraham killing his son for God with an almost emotionless sound. Chilling and beautiful.
Many other songs follow this format of a short, sweet, and quiet style. This may get boring to some, but enough variety comes in whether the song is acoustic guitar or banjo led. None of these songs go further than just above 3 minutes; therefore, they never drag on for too long. Typically, Sufjan likes to have a bit of an instrumental interlude between his verses and add female backup vocals for a nice touch of growth by the end. While most songs have a dark feel, We Won’t Need Legs to Stand
is certainly the darkest of them all due to the chord progression and guitar/banjo pattern. The chord progression puts the song in an obviously minor key. The song subject speaks of death and afterlife. The beginning of the song fits the dark and brooding pattern, speaking of death first. However, the progression reaches a major chord and suddenly, everything rises up from the ashes. Sufjan argues that we will have wings when we die, and the afterlife will be better than the life we have now. We Won’t Need Legs to Stand
is the perfect representation of Sufjan’s ability to take simple instrumentation and still create a rollercoaster of emotions and still make it epic.
But what would a Sufjan album be without at least one instrumentally epic song? That comes in the form of Seven Swans
, the title track. It starts with one haunting banjo melody. The song seemingly starts like the quiet songs so abundant on this album, just Sufjan’s quiet vocals and a banjo. The sighing descending vocals throw back that melancholic feel of Abraham. The lyrics make a few references to the Book of Revelation, as the book represents Satan as the dragon and seven horns appear in the sky. After two verses, the song begins to grow. Piano chords add in along with extremely faint backing choirs. When Sufjan sings “He is the Lord,” the song begins to explode with emotion, accented by drums and much more involved piano. This bittersweet climax continues for a while, as the choir continues to repeat “He is the Lord” while Sufjan returns to the melancholic descending vocals.
should be the album closer. It refers to the book of Revelation and gives an epic ending to the album. It throws allusions to death and the end of time. Everything fits for the song to be an album closer. However, The Transfiguration
closes out the album with another song involving more instruments. The Transfiguration
simply tells the story of exactly what it says, Jesus’ transfiguration as accounted by the gospels. The song is another banjo-led song, although the main instrumental melody comes in the form of an oboe. The oboe plays an incredibly catchy melody that almost fits in a church Bible School song. The song being over 5 minutes, it does grow a bit, with the addition of female vocals, drums, and oboe while Sufjan sings. However, the section continues for way too long, making a weak album closer. It also stops without any real sign of ending. Unfortunately, The Transfiguration
is a weak album closer and only a mediocre song on the album.
Seven Swans serves a few purposes. Due to the multitudes of quiet songs, Seven Swans is incredibly relaxing as long as one ignores the subject matter. The sweet tone of Sufjan’s vocals and the simplicity of acoustic guitar or banjo serenades with a wave of relaxing melodies. However, Seven Swans can be just as uplifting, thought-provoking, and epic if one pays attention to what Sufjan is really talking about. The album takes on much more meaning for a Christian, as all the religious matter applies directly to Christianity. However, if one is a strong atheist, Seven Swans is still worth a listen for the musical side of the album. It proves a good diversion from the infamous state albums of Sufjan Stevens.
The Dress Looks Nice on You
We Won’t Need Legs to Stand