First UK release from powerful and strange Michigan singer-songwriter
At first, Sufjan Stevens seems like another baleful, tentative folk-pop singer in the vein of Elliott Smith. All the requisite signifiers are in place:spare, brittle melodies; a hushed intimacy, where every squeak of fingertip on string resonates; a first line which runs, “If I am alive this time next year”. An electric guitar doesn’t arrive until track six, “Sister”, and even then its manoeuvres are discreet, in keeping with Stevens’ apparently subdued aesthetic.
Admittedly, he’s very good at this?for once, the Smith comparisons are deserving. There are pleasing echoes, too, of Will Oldham in the doleful banjo lines, and Low in the way Stevens harmonises with his female backing vocalists, endearingly disconsolate seraphs.
He is, though, nowhere near as straightforward. A part-time member of creepy infantilists The Danielson Famile, Seven Swans is actually Stevens’ fourth solo album. His lo-fi 2000 debut, A Sun Came, was followed by an electronica concept album about the Chinese zodiac called Enjoy Your Rabbit, and then last year’s acclaimed Greetings From Michigan, a lavish chamber-pop suite about his home state.
This eccentric history helps explain the profound otherness of Seven Swans. Stevens’ strumming often has an unwordly quality that transcends folk archetypes and asserts itself halfway through the brilliant “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, when an organ-led band break the reverie with a plausible impression of Stereolab.
As the album progresses, not only does the music build and intensify, but what seems to be a peculiarly visceral line in Christianity emerges, too. Stevens’ God is picturesque and vengeful, Blakean?the sort that provides such vicarious fascination to unbelievers. “When we are dead, we all have wings/We won’t need legs to stand,” he claims, menacingly, while his banjo plots looming circles round him. By the title track, Stevens is seeing signs in the sky and hearing voices. His choirmates, meanwhile, have been mobilised into an ad hoc Polyphonic Spree, brandishing flaming swords and ready for Armageddon, warning: “He will take you/If you run He will chase you/Cos He is the Lord.” As fire and brimstone rain down, albeit subtly, it’s plain Stevens is far too awkward a talent to be trapped in the confessional. Like the equally mystical Devendra Banhart, he’s more at home in a much broader, weirder and, ultimately, more compelling church.