Like a Prayer

Sufjan Stevens's 'Seven Swans'

For the better part of the last month my iPod has served as little more than a delivery vehicle for the music of Sufjan Stevens, a thirty-year-old Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter. After a week of obsessive listening, it suddenly hit me: he’s using messianic language. Not that I should have been surprised—the song that had struck me most after all is called "The Transfiguration." I was so transfixed by the song’s lush, unusual musical landscape—starting with a simple banjo and building to a layered mix of horns, drums, guitar, keyboard, and xylophone—that I had barely noticed the words. But there they were, floating above the track’s gorgeous final crescendo: "Lost in the cloud, a sign, Son of Man, turn your ear. Lost in the cloud, a voice, Lamb of God, we draw near. Lost in the cloud, a sign, Son of Man, Son of God..."

How had this escaped me the previous dozen times I’d heard the song? I had majored in theology, for Lamb of God’s sake; how could I have missed the explicitly theological nature of this song? Of the entire album? More important, what sort of a musician and songwriter would write such a piece?

What initially blinded me to the nature of Stevens’s songs was simply the fact that I find most contemporary Christian music dreadful. The genre is typically marred by the predictable, heavy-handed musical stylings of any number of cookie-cutter bands whose evangelical intentions guide their aesthetics. It seemed nearly impossible that a musician whose songs are unabashedly informed by his faith could actually produce quality material.

Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-YAHN) Stevens is a Detroit native who describes himself as "Anglo-Catholic" and his Christianity as "the most important thing in my life." He was a relatively unknown quantity on the music scene until 2003, when he released his third album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State. A modest but moving meditation by Stevens on his home state, Michigan treats subjects as disparate as family woes and economic disaster in Flint. Stevens’s high, light, but emotionally affecting voice, his eclectic choice of instruments, and his blending of genres (folk, rock, jazz, funk, and more) had critics swooning. They hailed the record as a political-musical triumph, and eagerly anticipated a follow-up album extending Stevens’s musical social criticism.

They got God instead. What the critics had missed in Michigan, the personal reflections and religious references that surfaced but didn’t dominate, took center stage in Seven Swans, released the following year. Gone was most of Michigan’s historical/geographical specificity—no tracks like "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!" or "The Upper Peninsula" or "Alanson, Crooked River"—and in its place were song titles such as "Abraham," "The Transfiguration," and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (a title borrowed from the Flannery O’Connor short story). The album works as an extended theological reflection on sacrifice, gratitude, and the nature of God.

Seven Swans begins as Michigan does: a single instrument and a slowly building momentum containing layers of repetition. "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" opens with the gentle plucking of banjo strings ushering in Stevens’s soft, thin voice, which is joined by a female chorus chanting "da da, dada-da-da" behind the lyrics, and then a piano enters with its own slow repetition of notes. The spare lyrics address no one in particular: "I am joining all my thoughts to you. And I’m preparing every part for you." This signals the intention of the album; these are words of worship, a believer’s response to the call of God. Stevens sings of "throwing all my thoughts away...destroying every bet I’ve made," emptying himself to be joined with "you." He’s pushing aside his own thoughts to make room for God.

"You" shows up again in "To Be Alone with You," a quicker-paced tune, where the subject is more explicit. The song starts with Stevens announcing his willingness to "give my body to be back be alone with you." This longing, this self-giving, self-emptying, finds its parallel in Christ’s. In the next verse, Stevens sings, "You gave your body to the lonely. They took your clothes. You gave up a wife and a family. You gave your ghost....You went up on a tree, to be alone with me." The song is an expression of gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice. The simple power of this gift is reflected in the song’s lyrical and musical spareness-the longest word has three syllables, and but one guitar plays accompaniment.

This sparse aesthetic doesn’t predominate much past the record’s midpoint, "Sister," a six-minute track of which the first four minutes are instrumental. In place of Stevens’s folksy banjo, an electric guitar leisurely plays over drums and an organ, to which is added a falsetto chorus of do’s and da’s. "Sister" serves as a herald for the back end of the album: less folksy arrangements and more complex compositions characterize the subsequent songs, but in ways musically and lyrically diverse enough to avoid monotony.

"Seven Swans," the penultimate track, opens with methodical banjo strumming, a prelude to Stevens’s singing about being awakened by a tree that’s on fire in his family’s yard. He sees a vision of seven swans in the sky, and hears a voice repeating, "I will try." Here, some of Stevens’s playfulness comes through. He fuses the jocularity of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (seven swans a-singing) with a dark night of the soul, getting at the terror that can accompany the joy of deep faith—quite literally the fear of God. The banjo is joined by darker piano chords struck hard. The vision continues: a seven-horned dragon descends from the sky and incinerates his father. His mother flees, and the voice sounds again, "I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord." A haunting chorus of ooo’s begins as we hear, "He will take you, if you run....He will chase you, ’cause he is the Lord."

Stevens hints at this pursuit by God in another song, "He Woke Me": you can fall asleep in the father’s presence again and again—he will always wake you. You can run from him, but he will chase you. Under the final repetitions of "He is the Lord" by a female chorus, the music swells movingly to its haunting climax: symbols crash, drums beat low, the piano pounds out its morose, painful—sounding chords, an organ drones. As the chorus holds its last "Lord," Stevens’s cracking voice sings "seven swans, seven swans, seven swans"—an image of perfection and loveliness. Holding this tension between the Lord-as-dragon and the Lord-as-swan is a striking articulation of Stevens’s faith in a God who both terrifies and soothes.

But Seven Swans doesn’t leave you there. "The Transfiguration," the album’s last and best song, retells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration before the disciples Peter, James, and John. From the song’s first moments, where a banjo riff repeats a series of buoyant notes, the listener can sense momentum. The lyrics are clean, narrative, and they echo moments in "He Woke Me" and "Seven Swans": Jesus’ "clothing was aflame"—like the trees engulfed in fire in "Seven Swans"—and "a voice of God arrived." But once Jesus’ transformation takes place, the point of view changes to that of the disciples. As he is transfigured, so is the song. New instruments appear: a bass guitar, horn, xylophone—and the piece takes on the air of a Taizé chant. "Lost in the cloud, a voice: have no fear! We draw near!" Variations of this ("Son of Man, we draw near") repeat as the layers of instruments build to an ebullient conclusion.

The artistic success of "The Transfiguration," of the album as a whole, is in the musical and theological reconciliation of the themes of "Seven Swans." Whereas "Seven Swans" posits a God of paradox amid a chaotic, even frightening, musical field—the instruments at song’s end seem to act against one another—"The Transfiguration" unties these knots musically with infectious harmonies, and lyrically with a depiction of the glorious revelation of Jesus’ divinity. With this transfiguration, paradoxes are made sense of, chaos is restored to harmony—just the work a messiah is supposed to do.

Not long after the release of Seven Swans, Stevens announced that his next album would be Illinois, the second in a plan to cut one record for each state in the Union—a curious project for the theologically minded Stevens, but one in line with the playfulness that characterizes much of his work. The audacity of the idea raised the eyebrows of pop-culture observers, garnering Stevens a raft of media attention; but when Illinois was released this year, it received a four-star review in Rolling Stone. One has to wonder, what’s more astonishing: the guts it takes to embark on such a plan, or the fact that an artist who sings so openly—so astutely—about his faith just might be the next big thing?

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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