Saturday, July 15, 2006

Seven Swans, Take Two

In lieu of Avalanche, the new Sufjan Stevens album of outtakes and extras from Illinois, I thought it about time to take another look at Seven Swans, another Sufjan album sometimes described as a B-side record. I've never quite understood my roommate's recalcitrance to call it a "real" album, and here are the reasons why.

For starters, Seven Swans only sounds similar to Michigan in that it's a Sufjan album, written and recorded in the early days of his career (or so we're hoping). So while Illinois and Avalanche could be called companion albums, Seven Swans and Michigan cannot. Granted, Michigan and Seven Swans are both melancholic albums when compared to Illinois, yet the mood of Seven Swans springs forth more-so from the sparse and limited arrangements rather than from the lyrical content. The album stands apart from Michigan in its rejection of the multi-layered sonic approach utilized on Sufjan's state-themed albums. Not until "Size Too Small" do we hear a song that would sound very much at home on Michigan.

Yet it's the lyrical content what really sets Seven Swans apart from Michigan. While there are some fairly straightforward songs in the mix (take the lyrics of "Abraham," for instance: Abraham, worth a righteous one /Take up on the wood /put it on your son), many of these songs simply don't make a whole lot of sense. The songs of Michigan are intensely personal -- whether about Sufjan's home, his own experiences, and the experiences of his song subjects -- or grounded in historical geography. Seven Swans takes an entirely different approach. As a writer, Sufjan is stretching his wings outside his old home state and really reaching for something different, something new. At times he succeeds, as in "In The Devil's Territory":

Be still and know your sign.
The beast will arrive in time.
We stayed a long, long time.
We stayed a long, long time.
To see you, to beat you,
to see you, at last.

It's hard to tell who the "you" in the song is. And it's impossible to tell who the narrator of the song is (we can't assume it's Sufjan simply because he's the one doing the singing). Yet even amidst the confusion of the song, the "you" in the song can be interpreted as a romantic "you." And despite references to "the beast," it's still Sufjan's most pop-oriented song to date.

Other songs are more difficult to measure. While "Size Too Small" is almost as achingly gorgeous as "Romulus" (from Michigan), its meandering lyrics are a bit of a putoff.

Everything rises, going at it all.
All the surprises in a size too small.
And what if I told you
I was still in love with this?
Would you surprise us
in a size for all of me?
I still know you.
And I still like you, the best man.

Yet other songs are head-scratchers in an absolutely wonderful way. "We Won't Need Legs To Stand" is either about the Eurcharist, the Eschaton, the prayer of the High Priest, or maybe even the cry of a paraplegic prisoner:

So faithful, so few,
so pardon, and done.
And when we receive,
we give a change at last.

And when we are dead,
we all have wings.
We won't need legs to stand.
And when we receive.
to see a change at last.

Whichever it is, it works.

It's not fair to ignore this and call Seven Swans a series of Michigan casts-off simply because of two nods towards everybody's favorite pleasant peninsula (Lake Michigan and Detroit, in separate songs). It's Seven Swans that gets Sufjan pegged as a freak-folkster. And the songwriting, while perhaps his most abrasively "Christian" material, scares me like the others can't. Take the title track, "Seven Swans":

We saw the dragon move down.
My father burned into coal.
My mother saw it from far.
She took her purse to the bed.
I saw a sign in the sky:
Seven horns, seven horns, seven horns.
I heard a voice in my mind:
I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.
He said: I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.
He said: I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.

When you finally get to the refrain at the end -- He will take you/If you run/He will chase you-- it's difficult to tell if the taking and the chasing are romantic, or the most terrifying thing in the world. Being chased by God sounds like something from the Song of Solomon, but in the context of the lyrics and the mood of the music, it feels like it may be just as terrible as being burned by the dragon. There's no doubt that it finds inspiration in the fantastic imagery of the Book of Revelation, and yet it really doesn't bring much eschatological comfort considering it doesn't end like John's Apocalypse does. Mostly, it seems to just end in judgment and fire. Period. And that's no good. In fact, if "The Transfiguration" didn't immediately follow "Sevens Swans," I would probably be too afraid to dare another listen.

All these instances, at least for me, are what really allow Seven Swans to stand on its own two feet. Lyrically and sonically, it's a separate experiment from Sufjan's 50-State-albums. One only need to take a look at the track listing for Avalanche to realize that this is an album of outtakes -- songs that just didn't make the cut. An in depth look at Seven Swans, however, shows that it's an entirely different beast of an album. One of very different sounds, shapes and textures. One that is a pop record all its own.

And one that I'm oh-so-grateful to have and to hold and to hear.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Mark Mothersbaugh!

There's a fantastic little interview with Mark Mothersbaugh, DEVO frontman and composer extraordinare for Wes Anderson, over at that deserves your attention. As well writing such gorgeous scores for Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums, Mothersbaugh has also written the music for TV shows like Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Rugrats. And if that wasn't the coolest thing you've ever heard, he also adopted a baby girl from China!

Plus, his website's pretty sweet, too.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Our most ambitious work to date

We are strong and pure of heart, etc.(!)

We are sitting these days, and smiling. We are thinking of ways to reverse time, to warp space, to hunt down vampires and turn them to dust, and things of that nature, regarding villainy and H.G. Wells and Stephen Hawking. These days are full of mosquito bites and awkward conversations, armies of one and superfluous congressional sessions. These days are full of all these things and more.

Things these days are full of, in Wisconsin, but not Chicago:

  1. We have seen wooded hills without buildings!
  2. We have seen fireflies, lightning bugs, usually around 8:15pm!
  3. We have seen Best Week Ever, courtesy of VH1!

Things these days are full of, in Chicago, but not in Wisconsin:

  1. We are missing Taste of Chicago, for the second straight year!
  2. We are missing Stella get skinnier, or at least that is our hope!
  3. We are missing all that heated concrete, which really isn't such a big deal, which in fact, we pretty much hate!

Then, later on in the day...

We are thinking of how many unfunny comedians there are in this world, and how we know so many funny people who aren't comedians, and how we ought to have the power to hand out sitcoms to our friends. We are thinking of other things we ought to be handing out to our friends. Such as, a) music to love; b) cake to eat; and c) bottles of tap water, because tap water is free.

Burn yr iPod.

We are listening to the Concretes so very much these days, and by we I should like to mean all of us, and everyone we know, and their aunts, uncles, cousins, etcetera, for the good of mankind and mother earth, for the betterment of society as we know it, for bits of the eschaton in our cd players, but not necessarily our mp3 players, because the jury is still out on whether or not we like those, but as of last count we are 9-3 in opposition, mostly because there are definitely times when music should not be played, when we should shut the fuck up and listen to the sounds of our surroundings, and remind ourselves that we are not actors in a movie, and we do not need a soundtrack when we laugh and dance like children of the night, and there are no happy moments that would be better experienced in montage, and we can never understand another person's life in two and a half hours, and books have no singles from the Shins and they are better for it.

To reiterate:

  1. We are not living in a movie.
  2. Life has its own soundtrack; it's called our hearts and hands and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet.
  3. There is no such person as Meg Ryan/George Clooney in real life. And we are better for it.

Also, we have voices, and our voices are the greatest voices in the world, regardless of what others may say, because they are bastards, and we are children of God.

While our kids are dying in Iraq, let us speak endlessly of outlawing flag burning and same-sex marriage all the while pretending it has nothing to do with that election in November!

Yes! We are frustrated these days with the state of how things are, and frustrated with our lack of power to make things right, to restore lands to their original owners, to support those who toil and labor rather those than who pillage and exploit, to stand up the chairs of justice on all four legs, declaring an actual year of jubilee, a factual year of jubilation, letting lands lay fallow and tax cuts expire, realizing that while it may sting today, we owe it to our children to leave them with a better world than what we were given. Let us be stewards and not corporate raiders. Let us be Peter Parkers and not Norman Osbornes. Let us seek truth, even when it hurts like hell! I'm talking to you, Rick Santorum!

We have run out of things to say.

Finally, do we remember that one scene in Conan the Barbarian, where Arnold slugged that horse in the face? Oh man, that was completely freaking ridiculous! I'm talking to you, Rick Santorum!

Hell, yeah!