MUSIC MONDAY The Lyrical Faith of Sufjan Stevens


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Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans Album

The Lyrical Faith of Sufjan Stevens

matthewbrake84 matthewbrake844 years ago

The Lyrical Faith of Sufjan Stevens

matthewbrake84 matthewbrake844 years ago

Though he is not a ‘Christian musician,’ indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has built a cult following among Christian listeners, and his haunting music has a deeply religious quality.

Stevens’ ethereal songs frequently convey musings about faith, while at other times, he is directly talking to God. Religious imagery is especially prominent in his albums Seven Swans and Carrie and Lowell.

Seven Swans has songs about the transfiguration of Christ and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, pivotal experiences in the lives of both figures. Both songs deal with sacrifice:

‘Abraham, put off your son

Take instead the ram

Until Jesus comes’

Several songs later, “The Transfiguration” should be a joyous celebration of Christ’s arrival, but Sufjan points to the sorrow that is still to come:

‘The voice of God: the most beloved son

Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come

the prophecy was put to death

Was put to death, and so will the son’

Over and over again, Stevens points the listener back to the truth that suffering will come into every human life—even the Son of God’s.

This theme continues in Carrie and Lowell, written about the death of Stevens’ mother. The album is a modern day lamentation; Stevens’ quiet voice cries out to God in mourning, seeking for an understanding of the pain that has entered his life. “God, of Elijah, how?” Steven’s asks in his song “Drawn to the Blood.”

‘For my prayer has always been love?

What did I do to deserve this?’

“I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it,” Stevens said of the album in an interviewwith the Guardian. “But the writing and recording wasn’t the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness.”

The music grapples honestly with this darkness, not attempting to explain away death but simply to mourn it—a breach from some musicians who portray a prosperity gospel version of Christianity.

Not much is known about Steven’s personal life, but in a 2005 interview he said that he attends an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church. “I kind of admire it for being so traditional and sort of unchanging and unwavering in a lot of its doctrine, but also very sort of open and broad in its understanding of human nature,” he said of the church.

This Anglo-Catholic sensibility shines through in his music. Steven’s songs are rooted in a traditional faith and a strong sense of aesthetics but don’t shy away from exploring the whole range of human emotion. In his music, people feel joy, pain, and sorrow—sometimes all at once.

Listening to Stevens’ Christmas songs—of which there are dozens—is a unique experience. Advent is a season of expectation and Christmas one of joy, but Stevens carries the same sorrow-tinged beauty into this music. Melancholy Christmas music isn’t something Stevens’ invented—just listen to Coventry Carol—but he continues the trend. His rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is so quiet it’s almost pleading, begging to believe that the Christ child is truly on his way.

‘Star of terrifying effigies

when the night falls

I carry myself to the fortress

Of your glorious cost’

That’s what Christ’s birth represents: it is beautiful, but it is “terrifying” because of the change it represents for the world. And it is costly, because while Christ is still being born we already know how he must die.

Stevens’ most bizarre Christmas song is his rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a remixed, almost techno version of the original that carries on for nine minutes. The lyrics are the same, but it ends with a loop of the “do you feel what I feel?”

Ultimately, that’s what Stevens’ music makes us do: feel. His music pushes us past the saccharine and the hollow to feel the reality of a life of faith, with all its beauty and sorrow.

Carina Julig is a journalism and political science student at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studies the intersection of religion and politics. She is an editor at the CU Independent.

Seven Swans

Seven Swans is a folk rock music album by Sufjan Stevens, released on March 16, 2004 on Sounds Familyre Records. It is Stevens’ fourth studio album and features songs about Christian spiritual themes, figures such as Abraham, and Christ‘s Transfiguration.[2][3] The songs are primarily “lush acoustic compositions” with Stevens’ banjo.[2] It was recorded and produced by Daniel C. Smith, Sufjan’s close friend. The album was released on compact disc by Sounds Familyre Records and vinyl LP; the vinyl was released by Burnt Toast Vinyl.

Critical receptionEdit

Seven Swans
Studio album by Sufjan Stevens
ReleasedMarch 16, 2004
GenreIndie folk[1]
Length46:19
LabelSounds Familyre (original release)
Asthmatic Kitty (2016 reissue)
ProducerDaniel Smith
Sufjan Stevens chronology
Michigan
(2003)Seven Swans
(2004)Illinois
(2005)
Singles from Seven Swans
The Dress Looks Nice on You
Released: March 8, 2004
Aggregate scores
SourceRating
Metacritic87/100[4]
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic4/5 stars[5]
Drowned in Sound8/10[6]
Entertainment WeeklyA−[7]
The Guardian4/5 stars[8]
Mojo4/5 stars[9]
Pitchfork8.1/10[2]
Q3/5 stars[10]
Rolling Stone3/5 stars[11]
SpinA−[12]
Uncut4/5 stars[13]

Seven Swans has a score of 87 out of 100 based on 23 reviews at Metacritic, indicating a “universal acclaim” rating from the site.[4] The Guardian called it “a record of remarkable delicacy”[8] and Spindescribed the album as sounding “like Elliott Smithafter ten years of Sunday school“.[12] In December 2004, American webzine Somewhere Cold ranked Seven Swans No. 3 on their 2004 Somewhere Cold Awards Hall of Fame list.[14]

Thematic elementsEdit

Many of the songs on Seven Swans tell stories directly from the Bible. “Abraham” references the bible story wherein Abraham is tested by God and told to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham, at the last moment and with knife in hand, is stopped by an angel and instead sacrifices a ram to God. The final song, “Transfiguration”, is a “bittersweet note of Jesus’ requisite suffering”.[2] “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is based on a first-person account by The Misfit character from Flannery O’Connor short storyof the same name.[2] The lyrics of the title song, “Seven Swans,” loosely allude to the events of the Book of Revelation.

Track listingEdit

All tracks written by Sufjan Stevens.

  1. “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – 4:14
  2. “The Dress Looks Nice on You” – 2:32
  3. “In the Devil’s Territory” – 4:57
  4. “To Be Alone with You” – 2:44
  5. “Abraham” – 2:33
  6. “Sister” – 6:00
  7. “Size Too Small” – 3:04
  8. “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” – 2:12
  9. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” – 3:16
  10. “He Woke Me Up Again” – 2:43
  11. “Seven Swans” – 6:33
  12. “The Transfiguration” – 5:18

Bonus 7″

  1. “I Went Dancing with My Sister”
  2. “Waste of What Your Kids Won’t Have”

PersonnelEdit

Seven Swans ReimaginedEdit

Seven Swans Reimagined
Remix album by Various Artists
ReleasedMarch 29, 2011
Length60:52
LabelOn Joyful Wings

In 2011 a cover album reimagining the songs from Seven Swans was released. Many of the artists featured on this album had worked with Stevens in the past.[15][16]

Track listingEdit

All lyrics are written by Sufjan Stevens.

No.TitleArtistLength
1.“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”Bonnie “Prince” Billy5:24
2.“The Dress Looks Nice on You”The Gregory Brothers2:20
3.“In the Devil’s Territory”Derek Webb4:25
4.“To Be Alone with You”Joshua James3:32
5.“Abraham”Denison Witmer, Devin Greenwood & Caithlin De Marrais3:07
6.“Sister”Unwed Sailor6:06
7.“Size Too Small”Wakey!Wakey!3:36
8.“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand”Elin K. Smith3:34
9.“A Good Man is Hard to Find”DM Stith3:29
10.“He Woke Me Up Again”Half-Handed Cloud1:52
11.“Seven Swans”Carl Hauck5:27
12.“The Transfiguration”David Crowder*Band5:27
13.“I Went Dancing With My Sister”Jason Harrod4:42
14.“Waste of What Your Kids Won’t Have” (with Gregory Paul)Shannon Stephens5:02
15.“Borderline”Inlets2:49
Total length:60:52

“The Dress Looks Nice on You”Edit

“The Dress Looks Nice on You”
Single by Sufjan Stevens
from the album Seven Swans
A-side“The Dress Looks Nice on You”
B-side“Borderline”
ReleasedMarch 8, 2004
Length5:57
LabelRough Trade
Songwriter(s)Sufjan Stevens
Producer(s)Daniel Smith
Sufjan Stevens singles chronology
The Dress Looks Nice on You” 
(2004)”I Walked” 
(2010)

7″ limited edition single of “The Dress Looks Nice on You” was released by Rough Trade in support of the album on March 8, 2004. The single features the song “Borderline” as a B-side.

  1. “The Dress Looks Nice on You”  – 2:32
  2. “Borderline”  – 3:25

References

External links

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