Growing up as a christian led young me to search for specifically christian artists and albums, i had no issues with secular music, but there was a need in me that could only be met with lyrics about the christian lifestyle. Especially on Sunday, i just HAD to listen to something christian related on Sundays. At the time i was satisfied with what the internet offered me, artists like Skillet, Relient K, Thousand Foot Krutch, Switchfoot, Flyleaf, RED and a few others. Mostly Rock, but that's what i was listening to on any day of the week. Some of these groups aged better than others. At least one of them i should have realised was crap then, but i gave them the christian pass.
I didn't find out about Seven Swans, or Sufjan in general, until nearly 10 years after its release and, while i was still christian, i had moved away from my unusual practice and just listened to whatever music i wanted to. This was in part due to the realisation that a lot of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) just felt like a watered down version of their "Non-Christian" peers. Music designed to be safe, which confused me since Christianity was supposed to be "different from the world", not a pale recreation of it. I hadn't completely stopped listening to christian music, but it felt like there were 2 categories that had become acceptable to me: Worship music and great CCM.
Worship music is the stuff they sing at church, it's genuinely wonderful that it can bring people together and its simplicity is part of its charm, as it allows more people to join in and feel connected. Imagine trying to get a group of people to sing something as complex as Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. It would sound bad and everyone would feel bad. However this stuff is also pretty boring to listen to, it's not really designed for that. CCM by comparison, should be perfect to fill that hole, it has the opportunity to experiment in the same ways that secular music does, maybe it could be heavier, or more complex or include interesting and unusual tones. The lyrics can also be shifted away from the strict praising of God to any other topic about being a christian. Sadly this is rarely the case.
Enter Seven Swans. A beautiful record that completely breaks away from all the tired conventions that CCM had become. The album relishes in its imperfections instead of overproducing everything to the point of sterility. You can hear Sufjan's voice crack as he tries to reach certain high notes and quiver in moments of emotional uncertainty. He also takes some of the songs in different directions, like the whirling sound on In the Devil's Territory or the lo-fi guitar slow-crescendo on Sister. For the most part though, the songs are stripped back to a couple of instruments, usually Guitar and/or Banjo, and vocals. This allows the lyrics to shine through all across the album.
Many of the songs deal with Christianity in a far more detailed and personal way than any other record i've heard. Abraham, telling the story of its title character having to possibly sacrifice his own son. The Transfiguration describing Jesus briefly showing 3 of his disciples his true divinity. All the Trees... takes its title straight out of the Bible: "You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." Isaiah 55:12. In which Sufjan wants to join in the celebration that the very Earth itself is joining in, the return of Jesus:
"If I am alive this time next year
Will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far
And I'm still applied to what you are
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I'm preparing every part for you"
Other songs even branch away from the Bible to tell other related stories. For instance A Good Man is Hard to Find references the short story by Flannery O'Connor, in which a family are murdered by a wanted criminal with no memory of his crime. Here Sufjan tells the story from the point of view of the murderer, looking at the idea of relating and connecting to each other, whether they are family or complete strangers:
"Hold to your gun, man
And put off all your peace
And put off all the beast
Paid a full of these, I wait for it
But someone's once like me
She was once like me"
The songs are so well written with brilliant melodies and harmonies, the only artist who's sound is similar enough and capable of writing this personal and fantastic would be Elliott Smith. To my mind at least.
Some of my favourite moments on the album include the slow-build crescendo that is the first half of Sister, the incredibly haunting outro to the title track and the incredibly intimate To Be Alone With You, which honestly could just be a love song:
"I'd swim across Lake Michigan
I'd sell my shoes
I'd give my body to be back again
In the rest of the room
To be alone with you...
You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me"
Each of the tiny details of the record meant so much to me, as i'd finally found someone who was actually willing to treat his listener as an equal, someone who wanted to make truly beautiful music that reached for the very core of being a christian, that you are human, you don't have to be magically perfect. Especially since "perfection" doesn't sound that great. Even now, when i would no longer consider myself to be a christian, this album startles me, with just how personal and beautiful it can be.