Sometimes it isn't clear why you choose a new piece of music. When you go into a record shop and pick up a CD by an artist you've never heard of before, what makes you give it a listen? I had never heard of Sufjan Stevens before, but something about the album cover intrigued me, and I listened to it in the shop. Even through the one working working channel on the headphones (what do people do to headphones in Virgin?) I could tell that I would love it.
It's a very homespun, cut-down album, mostly acoustic, and is centred around vocals, a plinky bar room piano, guitars and a banjo. Despite — or perhaps because — of that, the sound grabs you from the start. The tracks are deceptively simple, but build and drag you into their quiet, other-worldly intensity. Another unusual feature is that many of the songs have off-kilter time signatures: 5/4 or 7/8 rather than the more usual 3/4 or 6/8.
The first track, â€˜All the Trees of the Field Will Clap their Hands' has a lulling, odd rhythm, and then builds slowly in a very pleasing way with more backing vocals and guitars. 'Sister' is a striking track — mostly instrumental, with some vocals near the end, and I also love the title track 'Seven Swans'.
Several tracks have references to religion, and depict a rather frightening and angry god. For example, on â€˜Seven Swans':
He said: "I am Lord. I am Lord. I am Lord."
He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you. He is the Lord.
He's a very interesting artist all round. I heard an interview with him on WNYC where he explained the origin of his unusual first name. Apparently, his parents got into some sect of Islam in the '70s, so he and all his siblings have Persian first names. I imagine that this must have resulted in an interesting childhood in Michigan, where he grew up. He has also said that he aims to record albums about all 50 of the States of the Union, and to that end, has started with his home state, Michigan.