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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans

SUFJAN STEVENS: SEVEN SWANS (2004)

1) All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands; 2) The Dress Looks Nice On You; 3) In The Devil's Territory; 4) To Be Alone With You; 5) Abraham; 6) Sister; 7) Size Too Small; 8) We Won't Need Legs To Stand; 9) A Good Man Is Hard To Find; 10) He Woke Me Up Again; 11) Seven Swans; 12) The Transfiguration; 13*) I Went Dancing With My Sister; 14*) Waste Of What Your Kids Won't Have.

General verdict: A generic roots-pop album with nice soporific effects.

You will not find a review of this album anywhere that does not discuss its Christian symbolism, and you will find very few reviews of it that do not expressly and explicitly focus on its Christian symbolism, bypassing just about everything else. Seems like the average reviewer, before any­thing else, asks him/herself the question: «Should I ridicule this guy for believing in Christ and making a Christian folk record, or should he be redeemed for the indie-styled mix of intelligence, honesty, and passion displayed therein?» — and then proceeds to the predictable answer. Because, you see, the average Christian is a sick nut or a redneck, but some Christians are better than others, as long as they direct their spirituality in the right direction. «Good boy, Sufjan!» critics say, «have yourself an A+ for directing your spirituality in the right direction!»

Personally, I have no problems at all with religious imagery in the lyrics, no problems with any artist embracing any sort of faith, even Satanism, as long as this helps the music convey a power­ful, passionate message that sweeps your feelings off their feet, regardless of your own beliefs and values. And it is also quite clear that Sufjan Stevens never was and never will be your average Christian rocker, borrowing and chewing up truisms from the Bible and setting them to generic Southern rock chord patterns. Whether his own Biblical impressions are truly interesting and enlightening will ultimately depend on the listener: sometimes he limits himself to reminding us of certain important timechecks in the source (ʽAbrahamʼ; ʽThe Transfigurationʼ), sometimes he makes up his own apocalyptic visions — the title track, for instance, introduces "seven swans" as a harbinger of doom, which is curious considering the near-total lack of any swan imagery in the Bible itself — and sometimes he mixes religious concerns with his personal life experience, meaning that there is plenty of stuff to analyze if you feel like analyzing, or if you think that anybody named Sufjan is automatically entitled to life-changing mystical experiences and are getting yourself ready to become an adept.

Anyway, it's okay, there is nothing wrong with trying to pull up some roots and give them a 21st century boy kind of twist. What bothers me is not the conceptual framework of the album, but the simple fact that, even much more so than its predecessor, it is deadly, deadly, deadly dull: 46 minutes (53 if you count the extra two bonus tracks on the 7" disc) of slowly tickling, mildly pleasant monotony.

If you want to understand how the heck can this guy be so insanely productive, Seven Swans, due to its stripped-down nature, provides a good answer. Almost each of these tracks is a slow, conservative groove that consists of exactly one melodic line repeated over and over and over — and it's not even as if the melodic line itself were tremendously original; no, most of the time it is a fairly familiar pattern or variation that you have, no doubt, witnessed on a million folk or country albums. Any professional folkie could have come up with the entire musical backbone for this album in one single day, maybe less. The only song that has some sort of development is ʽSisterʼ, and that is only because of the decision to include an electric guitar solo that precedes the main vocal theme, making the whole thing slightly Neil Young-ish in approach. Other than that, everything is terribly static; the only saving grace is that most of the tracks are relatively short. Add to this Sufjan's usual manner of singing — the exact same expression at every moment of any given track — and voilà, the recipe for eternal slumber is ready.

«But wait!», you say, «what about the atmosphere?» Sure enough, there'd be no Sufjan Stevens without the atmosphere, and this time around, the atmosphere consists of overdubbing acoustic guitars, banjos, electric and acoustic pianos, occasional organs, quietly hush-hushed rhythm sections (often with no drums at all), and soothing harmonies from Sufjan's friends, the Danielson Famile (Daniel Smith and his friends-and-relatives). Again, on paper, this might sound like a very nice formula, and I can see how it could work efficiently even when framing a set of simple, minimalistic musical themes. The problem is with the themes — I am genuinely sorry, but the pock-pock puck-puck pick-picking of ʽIn The Devil's Territoryʼ, even when you repeat it on the banjo and the piano and add a few rippling (and equally robotic) guitar flourishes in between, is muzak to my ears; and it is also the kind of muzak that does not sit well with lyrics like "I saw the dragons drying, I saw the witches whine".

I respect everybody's right to be subdued and dazzled by the quasi-epic nature of something like the title track — because, at least nominally, it features some sort of crescendo, beginning humbly and meekly with just a stuttering banjo and then, four minutes later, joined by crashing drums, forcefully battered electric pianos, and shrill falsetto harmonies. This is Sufjan's personal take on The Revelation: first he recounts his version of the vision, and eventually he gets around to the Big Climactic Moment when, you know, the Lord announces to him that he is the Lord. And the Big Climactic Moment is presented in an original and «classy» manner — I admit that electric pianos and prolonged falsetto notes are not everybody's idea of a grand finale. Unfortunately, they are not everybody's idea for a good reason: it isn't a very good idea. Intellectually, perhaps, yes, it is interesting to see the conception of the Apocalypse so thoroughly cleansed of its terri­fying imagery and pretty much pressed into Sufjan Stevens' Patented Dollhouse. But feelings-wise, the song just consists of four minutes of limp banjo picking, followed by two more minutes of soft baroque-country with big drums.

As usual, then, this is one more triumph of style over substance. The man does not even seem to be trying to write a rootsy melody that would stir up deep feelings when played on an acoustic guitar, à la ʽBlackbirdʼ or ʽNever Going Back Againʼ — he simply picks out random patterns from the folk / bluegrass / country textbook, and proceeds to «ennoble» them with non-banal (but very blandly delivered) lyrics and pretty ear-candy overdubs. As far as I'm concerned, the whole thing is entirely worthless.

8 comments:

  1. "Because, you see, the average Christian is a sick nut or a redneck"

    Hmm, hoping this is sarcasm, because otherwise Chaucer, Michelangelo, Pascal, Descartes, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Dostoevsky, Bach, Mozart, Handel, T.S. Eliot, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Arvo Part, and Wordsworth would like to have a word with you...

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    1. Because they are so average, right?

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    2. George is being sarcastic, and not at all subtlely.

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  2. I do urge you to read the ENTIRE paragraph attentively.

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    1. It took me a second to realize George was writing from the perspective of the "modern critic" and not himself. Not that we don't have our sick nutty moments, and we are largely an Appalachian crowd...

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  3. Raffi for grown-ups

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  4. "your average Christian rocker, borrowing and chewing up truisms from the Bible and setting them to generic Southern rock chord patterns."
    If I didn't know better, I'd think you were listening to Third Day.

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    1. Then again, that would imply TD actually borrows from the Bible. :o

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