Sufjan Stevens 

Seven Swans

The fourth album from Sufjan Stevens is hushed and intimate, with acoustic guitar and banjo plucking out most of the leads while Stevens gently whispers his lyrics. The songs on Seven Swans were originally slated to be on the 2003 album Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lake State, but that album was already spilling over with songs, so Stevens opted to parlay these tracks into their own album. Seeing that Stevens has claimed that Michigan represents just the first in a series of fifty state-related albums, we'll have to consider Swans a fortunate sidebar before he begins to explore America via the highways of folk-tinged indie pop.

Swans, then, is a much more personal record: He's addressing his own ideas of love and pitting them against his ideas of faith. Yes, faith. As in the son of man, the lamb of god, Mel Gibson, and all that. The record is out on Sounds Familyre, the imprint of the Danielson Famile -- the world's best raggle-taggle indie-folk Christians. In fact, various members of the Famile (including founder Daniel Smith) are featured players here.

As good as Michigan's songs were, they seem like warm-ups compared to the pure songwriting on Swans. Stevens is fond of layering pop songs together, gradually adding bits at a time to create something lush and baroque. So here he simplifies everything, but it's not simply an acoustic record -- there's too much attention to other sounds, however slight; even the subtle inflection of sound when mixing the instrumental bridges between verses sounds methodically planned out.

Technically, this isn't an acoustic record at all -- it's just that the overall sound is one filled with a confessional directness, a constant invoking of awe felt for love and faith. You can hear it best on songs like "The Dress Looks Nice on You" and "To Be Alone with Me," which are fairly straightforward love songs, but both moving in their directness. The title track, "Seven Swans," is a six-minute epic with full, grandiose intentions and a chorus that sings He is the love over and over, and you needn't think too hard about who He is. It's one of many moving tracks on an album that has toned down the wit and the post-production of Stevens' past releases, instead hitting on something more pure and personal.

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