Although Greetings from Michigan was an homage to his home state, prolific singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens' new album, Seven Swans, is not, as you might guess, a veneration to swans. Michigan was a sprawling and enthused record, but with his fourth album -- the second he's released in less than a year -- Stevens has faltered a little as he continues to rely primarily on his predictably somber, folksy arrangements to narrate his stories about the Devil, dragons and the supernatural. Pastoral themes run rampant throughout the album and at times it might even be misconstrued as a gospel album, as many of its songs approach another of Stevens' passions: religion. Several songs are directly dedicated to God, the Father and other religious figures, while other tracks casually incorporate similar imagery.

"All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands," like several of Swans other songs, finds Stevens integrating the strong devices of naturalism and personification of inanimate objects such as trees and clouds. Elin and Megan Smith, who contributed vocals to Michigan, make another appearance on the track, beautifully enhancing Stevens' soft timbre. The next track, by far the best on the disc, is the melodic "The Dress Looks Nice on You," on which he sings, "I can see you a lot of life in you/I can see a lot of bright in you," accompanied with the aforementioned banjo and germane synth hooks. However, such straightforward and personal statements aren't commonplace on the record, as he usually aims for more grandiose themes; on "In the Devil's Territory," for instance, he sings of the supernatural, anchored by a bewitching, noisy bridge.

Even with the range of subject matters on Seven Swans, Stevens still returns to mentioning his home state. "Sister," for example, is a middling track that is almost entirely instrumental, merely consisting of guitar until Sufjan ends the track with a pastoral, romantic afterthought: "What the water wants is hurricanes and sailboats to ride on its back/ What the water wants is sun kiss/land to run into and backů I have a sister somewhere in Detroit." The themes coalesce very naturally.

The rest of the album voyages into the religious themes that Stevens has always embraced; "Abraham," "He Woke Me Up Again" and the title track, which mentions a foreboding sign of seven swans flying in the sky and the Lord in pursuit, are rife with passionate imagery. With the final song, "Transfiguration," the album comes full circle as Stevens tells a story of Elijah and Moses; "Lamb of God, we draw near/ lost in a cloud, the sign, son of man, son of God/ lost in a cloud a voice, have no fear." Rarely do artists making music like Stevens approach their faith with such unabashed creative fervor.

Seven Swans also marks the first time Stevens has not engineered his own work (Daniel Smith did all the work this time around) and the results certainly seem to reflect what might otherwise seem like an inconsequential step back. This is still an auspicious album from a talented artist, but it lacks the punch and magic that Michigan had, and several of the songs come off sounding detrimentally uniform and indistinguishable. That said, Stevens' once again manages to bring us into his work and, in effect, his world -- one in which God speaks, trees clap, and dragons strike back. It's just too bad the music on Seven Swans isn't nearly as consistently intriguing and unique as his lyrics.

-Garin Pirnia, March 9, 2004

Sufjan Stevens
Seven Swans
(Sounds Familyre; 2004)

Rating: 77%
Combined Rating:

1. All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands
2. The Dress Looks Nice on You
3. In the Devil's Territory
4. To Be Alone With You
5. Abraham
6. Sister
7. Size too Small
8. We Won't Need Legs to Stand
9. A Good Man is Hard to Find
10. He Woke Me Up Again
11. Seven Swans
12. The Transfiguration

Sufjan Stevens
Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State
(Asthmatic Kitty; 2003)

Rating: 84%
Combined Rating:

1. Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)
2. All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!
3. For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
4. Say Yes! To Michigan!
5. The Upper Peninsula
6. Tahquamenon Falls
7. Holland
8. Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)
9. Romulus
10. Alanson, Crooked River
11. Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie
12. They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)
13. Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)
14. Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
15. Vito's Ordination Song

There's a slight dichotomy with Michigan: there's the sprawling beauty of trees and lakes of its rural regions contrasted with the infamous city of Detroit, which is perhaps best known (outside of Eminem and Henry Ford) for its excessively high murder rate. But Michigan is a staple of the quiet Midwest, and happens to be the home state of singer/songwriter impresario Sufjan Stevens, who now resides in New York with an obvious nostalgia for the Great Lake State.

As devoted as it may be, Michigan certainly isn't an album that basks in the idealism of a man looking back with fondness. With his banjo in tow, he has created a concept album covering a complete range of beauty, optimism and anguish that comprise the state and its inhabitants. Stevens personifies Michigan in all its glory and sociological destituteness with lengthy titles such as: "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!), "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)" and "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace." In doing so, he has incorporated a myriad of instruments including banjo, glockenspiel, flute, vibraphone, recorder, oboe, xylophone, trumpet and guitar -- all of which are creatively arranged in the mix, especially Stevens' use of the banjo, which, in a singer/songwriter context, is the most innovative I've heard it used since Travis' "Sing" and Low's "In the Drugs."

Opening track "Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)" is undeniably evocative of Michael Moore's documentary Roger and Me, which put a direct and devastating focus on the wayward city; the tranquil piano and trumpet propel song acts as a dirge for the lost people of Flint, evoked through bruised optimism: "I pretend to try/ even if I try alone." "Say Yes! To Michigan," on the other hand, could be the Michigan's tourist's board theme song. Stevens joyously sings, with background vocals from Danielson Famile members Elin and Megan Smith: "Still I never meant to go away/ I was raised in the place/ Still I think often about going back to the farms, golden arms."

"Tahquamenon Falls," an instrumental that creates a cascading waterfall effect of xylophone notes trembling down the mountainside, is one of several pieces where Stevens attempts to share the sentient beauty of the state through visually evocative arrangements and, like "Falls," they are very effective. "Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)," for example, is a melodramatic instrumental driven by sweeping score that sounds perfectly suited for a movie. On "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," the omnipresent banjo beautifully accents Stevens' passionate devotion: "If there's anything to say/ if there's anything to do/ if there's any other way, I'll do anything for you." His lyrics also manage to approach tales of love from back home, focusing just as much on the subjective devastation as much as the larger social problems. On "Romulus," one of the more specific tales on Michigan, he sings about being ashamed of a girl; "Holland," referring to a city in Michigan, approaches love with the kind of preemptive defeat that had opened the record: "Fall in love and then fall apart/ things will end before they start."

Sufjan Stevens is a folk impelled musician who can sing, write, play and record his own material in a similar realm as Badly Drawn Boy and, at times, Scottish sensation Damien Rice. What really sets Sufjan apart, however, is his ability to invite us into his mindset and transcend into another world full of ethereal, dreamy, romantic and consistently beautiful music. Michigan is, even with its realistic descriptions of defeat and squalor, ultimately a love letter to the people he grew up whom have seen hardships but manage to march on because somehow hope still thrives. This is an inspiring, personal, lush, heartfelt and multi-layered record where every song tells an intricate story of a certain time and place; the tone is melodic and introspective, but never completely falters into gloomy territory like the song titles insinuate. As tourism initiatives go, this may be oddly realistic, but it's the sincerity of Stevens' songs that manage to reveal Michigan as the passionate and humane place it is -- even with, or perhaps because of, its misfortunes -- and his basic message still reads as a nostalgic and longing "there really is no place like home."

-Garin Pirnia, March 9, 2004