It was just about a week ago that I proclaimed to a friend that Sufjan Stevens was most likely my current favorite singer/songwriter under the age of 30. I then revised that statement to the age of under 40, and then I even went ahead and declared that Stevens might very well be my current favorite singer/songwriter flat out. I've had the fortune of following his progress from the start, and although that debut disc (A Sun Came) didn't exactly signal greatness, it was the stunning leaps and bounds that he made with his follow-up of Enjoy Your Rabbit that marked him as a musician I should keep my eye on.
After his stylistically varied first two CDs, I'm not sure that anyone could have predicted the wealth of treasures that was Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State. Over the course of 16 tracks and almost 70 minutes of music, Stevens tackled joy and loss and hope and hope and just about every other emotion with a grace that made it almost seem easy. Using a huge variety of instrumentation and writing tracks with both traditional and hardly-used timing signatures, it was a lovely ode to his home state and a glorious album in general.
Because of the dizzying scale of Michigan it seems logical to set up Seven Swans as possibly being an album full of cast-offs or b-sides from the same session, but in fact they were actually recorded before Michigan and only finished afterwards. On the first couple listens, I even fell prey to wanting the same sort of release, and it wasn't until I'd really settled in with the 12 tracks that they really began to sink in as deeply as they should. The main reason for this is most likely due to the more stripped-down instrumentation and arrangements, but once again Stevens shows he's a master of the word (he has a masters in creative writing) as well, with Seven Swans being an even more spiritual and personal release than its predecessor.
Although Seven Swans is less musically complex than his previous work, it does highlight his deft banjo playing and features the vocal harmonies of Elin and Megan Smith on many tracks. "All The Trees Of The Fields Will Clap Their Hands" opens the disc and builds gracefully, opening only with the vocals of Stevens and banjo before vocals by the two Smiths join along with a quiet piano and finally drums to punctuate the ending. "The Dress Looks Nice On You" opens with guitar and vocals, but moves through several gorgeous sections punctuated with banjo and organ.
As with Michigan, one could go through the entire album and highlight nearly every song. In fact, the only track that sticks out musically is "Sister," which features some dirty electric guitars that don't quite fall in place with the rest of the release (which is for the most part acoustic). A personal favorite track of mine is "A Good man Is Hard To Find," inspired by the short story of the same name by Flannery O Connor (my favorite writer). Stevens narrates the song from the the perspective of The Misfit, and as always makes the whole thing seem almost effortless. I'm still not sure whether this release is better than Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, but in the end it doesn't really matter. Sufjan Stevens is a musician who seems to just be reaching his creative peak and shows no signs of slowing down.