Neo-folk troubadour Sufjan Stevens popped out of Brooklyn in 2003 with the release of the grit-free Greetings From Michigan, a quasi-concept album presumably designed to function as an homage to his home state. Now taking a temporary leave from broad Chamber of Commerce proselytizing, Stevens presents Seven Swans, a geographically ambiguous collection of mostly Christian folk songs.
No matter how many liberties are ultimately granted agenda-pushing lyricists, boldly emoting about Abraham is still a curiously ballsy move, especially when your audience skews a bit Williamsburg: It’s likely that bespectacled youth sporting unfunny “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirts will get pink-faced when the (pointedly non-ironic) subtexts of Seven Swans start pumping loud through their headphones. Still, it’s all that earnest cooing that makes the record so stupidly compelling. Stevens (whose avant-religion mirrors the quirky righteousness of his Danielson Famile labelmates, and whose blowsy sound nods to the sweet-faced sighs of the Innocence Mission and Iron and Wine) consistently eschews gilded pulpits in favor of low plywood stages. Instead of gospel soloists caterwauling in robes, Stevens pushes light acoustic strums and gently whispered compliments (“I can see a lot of life in you/And I think that dress looks nice on you.”)
His beliefs take periodic diva turns, but Seven Swans is still far more preoccupied with the banjo than God: Stevens’s tenderly picked chords fly higher than any golden harp, and his delicate, lapping vocals lovingly complement all that tinny stroking. Wary listeners might waste precious hours trying to pinpoint subliminal, Blakeian indoctrinations, but will walk away with nothing more than a perfect melody lodged upthroat.