“Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”
When indie folk artist Elliott Smith committed suicide in 2003, his restless ghost stayed behind. A vacancy opened in music, awaiting a new poet-savant of introspection.
In life, Smith’s imprint on acoustic music was unique. On record, his most memorable contribution was his Oscar-nominated song “Miss Misery”, which appeared in 1997’s Good Will Hunting. His five LP’s have achieved an impressive following for their beauty of emotional depiction. Those that have appreciated the authenticity of his music have also felt its burdens of melancholy, particularly striking in his 1997 release Either/Or. Tracks like “Speed Trials” are quiet reflections that, while subdued, carry surprising weight. Smith’s gift of emotional diagnosis allowed him to write powerfully moving songs, true — but that emotion had a very real source. Smith was plagued by a lifetime of depression, which eventually led him to take his own life.
Several artists tried and failed to fill the vacancy left by Elliott Smith’s death. Damien Rice was too transparently sentimental — Damien Jurado, too withdrawn. Older folk artists, like Nick Drake, lacked the freshness that invigorates independent music of our generation.
The year following Elliott Smith’s suicide, relative newcomer Sufjan Stevens released Seven Swans on his independent label Asthmatic Kitty. The record was a gentler, stripped-down successor to the broadly praised Greetings From Michigan, released the previous year.
In a hushed voice reminiscent of Elliott Smith, Stevens begins Seven Swans with the memento mori, “If I am alive this time next year…” — a strange recognition of death. He returns to the same meditation later in “We Won’t Need Legs To Stand”, beginning a stanza with “When we are dead…”
In many ways, we witness Elliott Smith’s reincarnation in Sufjan Stevens. Both in its solemn meditation and its aesthetic quality, Seven Swans evokes the memory of the deceased artist. The record is delicate and honest, unadulterated by studio doctoring. Both artists play a full range of instruments — adding that special sonic cohesion achieved when voice and hands belong to the same person. “The Dress Looks Nice on You”, the second track on Seven Swans, carries the same touch of personality, the same eccentricity of narrative present in so much of Either/Or.
From the very beginning, however, Stevens takes on a different, perhaps surprising, character. Unexpectedly, his first line takes a sharp turn when “If I am alive this time next year…” is followed by “will I have arrived in time to share?” An indelibly spiritual message begins to emerge. The subject of the first track, “All of the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”, is in fact a direct reference to Isaiah 55:12: “For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
The reference to the gospel is clear, but what else can we learn about Stevens from this song? As in much of Seven Swans, Stevens’s introspective honesty shines through his music. We are intimate spectators to a man questioning his own standing with the Lord. “Will I be invited to the sound?” he asks. In a superposition of self on scripture, he places himself in the context of Isaiah. What is required to be admitted to the festival that was promised?
His interesting scriptural connotations appear again and again throughout the record. “Abraham” is a hushed, meditative song in which Stevens fashions a link between the Father of Nations and the Messiah. In “He Woke Me Up Again”, he thankfully acknowledges the love of a father — in some ways reminiscent of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”. “To Be Alone With You” is a couched reflection on the personal life of Jesus. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is based on Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name; Stevens assumes the role of a character who has abandoned a life in Christ. He explores the difficulties of judgment and the residual effects of a past life as “the good Christian”.
In May 2004, Spin Magazine likened Seven Swans to “Elliot Smith after ten years of Sunday School.” While candid and endearing, the appraisal may not cast Sufjan Stevens’ purposes fairly. Seven Swans contains none of the sweeping religiosity of the church, and it seeks to alienate no one. Instead, it offers an introspective set of personal meditations. One might even say his statements are merely reflections on his own spiritual development — his uncertainties, his struggles. Nowhere does Stevens proselytize or profess to have transcendental knowledge. He offers instead his honest doubts, his bright hopes, his sincere convictions. One can imagine visions of divine procession in Stevens’s mind, musically manifest in gradual crescendos of organ, percussion, and vocal harmonies.
There is, however, an element of truth to the comparison. While Sufjan Stevens’s ability to paint emotion bears a striking similarity to his predecessor, he recasts his introspective challenges into spiritual lessons, a step that Elliott Smith in his melancholy was unable or unwilling to do.
The closing track to Seven Swans, titled “The Transfiguration”, begins with the sound of Sufjan Stevens’s characteristic banjo. Simply orchestrated but elegantly written, the song swells to a chorus of joy. “Consider what’s to come,” sings Stevens. While the intent of this lyric may elude us, it is this sense of expectancy that enlivens all of his music, replacing Elliott Smith’s melancholy with driving optimism.
In Seven Swans, we recapture some of the emotional depth that was lost with the passing of Elliott Smith. Stevens too engages his deepest doubts in his music, only with one pronounced change: he appeals to his guiding faith for reassurance, instilling in his inherited style a new quality of purpose.
Andrew Chen ‘11 is an Organismic and Evolutionary Biology concentrator living in Quincy House.