Known for elaborate, enterprising songwriting, Sufjan Stevens hasn’t slowed down since his critically acclaimed 2003 release Greetings from Michigan. His fourth release, Seven Swans, is an overachieving attempt to somehow broaden his appeal to both “believers” and “non-believers.”
Recorded three years ago by Danielson Famile/Sounds Familyre frontman Daniel Smith, Seven Swans is authentic and sincere. Stevens is fixed by the truth of his beliefs and has been genuinely moved to compose jangling, complicated epithets on their behalf. Subtle, meticulous banjo work mingles with complex vocal arrangements and — save drums, bass and some backup performed by the better half of the Danielson Famile — a variety of instruments (credited as “everything else” in the liner notes) carefully played by Stevens himself.
But the better part of Seven Swans comes across as contrived and obsessive. In an effort to bridge the gap between secular- and belief-based folk music, Stevens marginalizes his ability to maintain a solid sense of self on either side. He is neither an indie rocker nor a faith-oriented folkie; he is something in between an experimental genre-bending folk-head and an overly assured modern-day disciple of God.
You can hear this conflict in “In the Devil’s Territory,” where a tinny piano imitates a lush arrangement of fluttering banjo reverb. The repeated lyrics, “I’m not afraid to die / to see you / to meet you / to see you at last” are overly zealous and clash with the quiet reservation of the composition. Similar tracks “Abraham,” “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand,” “He Woke Me up Again,” “To Be Alone With You,” “The Transfiguration” and the title track all revolve around traditional Christian mythology that would not come across as an agenda if it weren’t for the rigid, guarded quality of his music.
Compensating for the organic, spontaneous nature of his creativity, Stevens is careful to make sure that every note in these arrangements has a clear and distinct purpose. This reveals an impressive command of technique but a decidedly stiff approach to recording. Stevens wants Seven Swans to sound simple, purposeful and beautiful, and on one level, it achieves this effect. It is rich and deep with feeling, but his religious enthusiasm and his single-mindedness does not permit the kind of free-form, fluid motion that makes independent music fresher and lower maintenance than “music with a message.” Seven Swans is a technical accomplishment but is too “pushy” in tone and arrangement. Next time, Stevens should stop trying so hard, pass the instruments around, and let the music play itself.