As a folk-rock artist, Sufjan Stevens has impressed fans for the last two decades with his careful sound and well-constructed lyrics. Released in 2004, Seven Swans serves as Stevens’ fourth Studio album, and features Stevens’ careful introduction of Christian themes amidst a somber instrumental backdrop. The online music review website Pitchfork states that “Seven Swans is so topically concerned with Christianity that a few wrong steps could easily have been a disaster.” However, the album manages to approach the subject of biblical morality without alienating listeners of other faiths; the album holds Stevens’ faith at its center, but is as much about exploring the ethos of humanity as it is retelling biblical stories.
The most overtly Christian themes can be observed in the songs “All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands,” “Abraham,” and the namesake of the album “Seven Swans,” Stevens introduces the album with a humble banjo solo in “All The Trees,” and makes direct allusions to traditional lines of a sermon in lyrics like “I am joining all my thoughts to you.” The next of these, “Abraham,” is a more direct retelling of a biblical story in which a father is instructed to kill his son by God. However, Stevens’ makes a point to draw into the emotional experiences of the listener; “Abraham” lays out the moral dilemma of a father who must choose between a person he loves and his God. Finally, “Seven Swans” is a subtle reference to the Book of Revelations; the number seven is a motif that serves to represent Christ in the bible, and the song embraces several direct images from Revelations.
When the album strays from its Christian roots, it tends to address the idea of morality more directly. “The Dress Looks Nice On You” was released as a single from the album, but is arguably the least overtly Christian song on the album. “The Dress Looks Nice On You” is posed as a more conventional love song, where Stevens draws inspiration from the object of his affections. However, the song still plays into the pensive atmosphere of the album; Stevens seems almost frustrated in that fact that he “can see a lot of life in” his romantic interest. In the song “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” Stevens writes a self-aware ballad about how he is slowly becoming a worse person. Stevens’ moral decay seems to drive a wedge between him and his romantic interest over the course of the song; he writes, “I once was better…but someone’s left me creased.” The song takes on a distinctly emotional and self-critical atmosphere in the space of only a handful of words.
The album stands out as a cohesive introduction to Stevens’ concept of morality, and how he formed his sense of ethics around the backbone of his religion. Stevens is known for the simplistic sounds of his music, and the intimate lyrics that generally accompany them; this album gets to the heart of something that’s deeply personal to the artist. He questions his worthiness as a person and reassures himself with the themes of his faith over the course of the album, and ultimately creates something that draws the listener closer to his personal experiences.
Seven Swans is intriguing in that it is a Christian album that explores humanity outside the context of Christianity; it’s about the concept or morality and how people can address it. Stevens’ music has provided something unique, topical, and thought provoking.