Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens was released on March 16th, 2004 by Sounds Familyre. 'The Dress Looks Nice on You' was its only single.

"I'm not fucking around!" was belted, emphatically, as a hurricane of neon colour painted the darkness. Between two totem figures, Sufjan made symmetrical signals with his hands and stared at the ground; an ugly intensity had turned to face us. I then thought about Sufjan's emergence to the falling leaves of 'Seven Swans' at the beginning of the evening: he serenaded us, dimly lit, with a banjo in hand, until the call "because he is the Lord" sounded strong. His wings opened wide. This song, written almost a decade before, was the only piece played that night which felt as progressive and apt as the Age of Adz stanzas Sufjan was screaming to the skies; this fact bewildered me.

There was a clear emotional connection between 'Seven Swans' and whatever traumas he suffered creating the Age of Adz that just wasn't apparent in any other songs sung that night. Despite being beautiful, what I feel is truly unique about Seven Swans is that, in an almost post-modern fashion, it accurately prophesied what was to unfold in the years to come. Due to this fact, speaking about Seven Swans in a retrospective manner feels a little like writing a posthumous obituary for a relative who is sat eating opposite you: it still has so much to offer. However, I can appreciate that after ten years of life we can try to undress this wonderful fourteen-winged creature once again.

Seven Swans is an unusual record that has sometimes been left out in the lurch and, as it has an identity which was a little difficult to discern and identify, it's understandable. On first listen, the aesthetics weren't too different to Michigan or perhaps even A Sun Came, however, there was a type of maturity and character focused in the songwriting which had seldom been seen on any Sufjan records. Whilst he was recognised as an emotive figure, the tales that he told were often impersonal and sang with an ethereal nonchalance. But songs like 'Sister' and 'To Be Alone With You'(thankfully, that song eventually wriggled free of the greasy grasp of the O.C. Soundtrack) enabled Sufjan. They were pivotal in his development of his personal flaws and emotion becoming more apparent in his music. I doubt he would've written pieces like 'Impossible Soul', 'The Owl and The Tanager' or 'Age of Adz' in the coming years if it hadn't been for the enlightenment of Seven Swans.

As you'd expect for a Sufjan Stevens album, there's grandiose melodrama, however, it is painted with a banjo in one hand and a notebook in the other. Whilst records like Illinois, The BQE and Age of Adz have theatrical and eclectic arrangements throughout, the construction of songs on Seven Swans is far more delicate than any of his other work. The fact that it is Sufjan's only album to date which wasn't self-produced must have been utterly significant. You'd assume that Daniel Smith's production would've at least affected Sufjan's priorities, concentration and perspective, thus informing the songs. Seven Swans has a kind of raw and intimate physicality that isn't present on any of his other records.

Stevens' early work has often attracted criticism for being so concerned with Christian rhetoric and Seven Swans is arguably the last of this ilk. However, I don't believe it to be religious in a fundamental or definitive way but instead a tarnished, sincere manner. The trembling fear of the apocalypse, Abraham's decision to sacrifice his only son for God; these are poignant, dramatic images which are etched into our subconscious on some level. When Sufjan warps and unsettles them, he creates an abhorrent and unusual tension for the listener; it's questioning something which is discreetly fundamental.

Despite this week marking the tenth year since Sufjan solemnly asked us the question: "if I am alive this time next year/will I have arrived in time to share?" we're still listening keenly, waiting to hear an answer that suffices for a question that remains so poignant, it seems to have transcended time itself.

  • Tracklisting:
  • 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