The fourth album from Sufjan Stevens is hushed and intimate, as he gently whispers his lyrics while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and banjo. The music on Seven Swans was originally slated for the 2003 album Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lake State. But it was already spilling over with songs, so he opted to parlay these tracks into a separate recording. Since he claims that Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lake State is just the first in a series of 50 state-related albums, we'll have to consider Seven Swans a fortunate sidebar before he begins to explore America via the highways of folk-tinged indie pop.
But Seven Swans 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 Seven Swans. Stevens is fond of layering pop songs together, gradually adding bits at a time to create something lush and baroque. 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 inflections that he creates when mixing the instrumental bridges between verses seem to be methodically planned out.
The album is filled with a confessional directness, a constant invoking of awe felt for love and faith. You can hear it best on "The Dress Looks Nice on You" and "To Be Alone with You," which are fairly straightforward love songs that are moving in their conciseness. The title track is a six-minute epic with full, grandiose intentions, and a chorus that sings "He is the love" over and over. You needn't think too hard about who He is.