Friday, January 23, 2009

Music: Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens

Last night I was listening to Sufjan Steven's Seven Swans for the first time in quite a long time, and I felt like expressing why I love it so much. Of course, to explain what this album means to me, I have to talk a little about my own life. So the enormous text I'm about to write isn't meant to be read as a review. It's more of a personal account of my relationship with the music; that is, i'm just going to ramble away.

First of all, I am an atheist. I grew up in a catholic country, but I have my quibbles with all religions, not only Christianity. It would take me too long to explain why, but I have strong objections to certain brands of Buddhism and other Eastern mystic traditions, for example. Still, I have to admit some of those religions are alluring to me in the sense that their scriptures often contain some very poignant imagery. In the Bhagavad Gita, for example, we witness a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield where the Kurukshetra war is about to take place. I'm particularly fond of this passage:

The Bhagavat said: I am Time, destroyer of worlds, resolved here to consume all beings. Do what you will--all the warriors arrayed in these armies shall cease to be, drawn up in their opposing ranks. Thus stand up and claim your praise. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a flourishing kingdom. They are already put to death by My arrangement, and you, O Savyasaci, can be but an instrument in the fight. (11. 32, 33)

When I wrote about Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!, I wanted to talk about this subject, but that review was long enough as it was, so I decided to leave it for some other time. Either way, when Feynman talks about the feeling of scientific awe that is "analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the whole universe," he is referring to the same thing the Bhagavad Gita alludes to. When I read the passage above, I find it hard to take the Bhagavat, the divine one, literally: he is only time, that which consumes everything. He's Spinoza's God, which is just another name for nature. The personification of the universe we find in the Bhagavad Gita works, in my opinion, as a poetic device to express its grandiosity.

O Arjuna, in the region of the heart of all contingent beings dwells the Bhagavat, twirling them hither and thither by his uncanny power, like puppets mounted on a machine. (18. 61)

This passage expresses a sense of inevitability I have come to know very well. Some believe it says we humans are incapable of making choices. The problem with that interpretation is that it assumes our decision making processes somehow stand apart from the world. But they don't. That passage doesn't say we don't learn from our mistakes, nor that we are bound to always act the same way. It only says that, ultimately, our actions are determined by our brains, which are determined by an infinitude of other causes. This is particularly clear when we feel strongly about something--we have the "choice" of harming a loved one, for example, but we also realize it isn't a choice at all, because we cannot feel any differently towards them. We are like puppets mounted on a machine because all the things we experience, including the very act of choosing, are brought about by the complexities of nature. As Feynman explains, this is the "realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is."

This is to say that, even though I'm very much an atheist, I do see some worth in many religious texts. But now I want to put Eastern religions aside for a moment and come back to Christianity. To be honest, it's much harder for me to feel that way about Jesus. Most of my relatives are Christians. I attended a catholic school for nine years. Like most people in the West, I interact with dozens of Christians in my everyday life. But that kind of exposure has never made me feel that Christianity conveys any sort of truth, metaphorical or otherwise. God has always seemed like an authority figure to me, even if benign. If not authoritative, He's at least distinct from our earthly lives. He is watching us, but he is not being us. Now, it's needless to say that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for such a god. Most Christians wouldn't dispute that fact. But my point here is that Christianity, at least as it is normally presented, has never even had an emotional hold on me. There was nothing I encountered in religion classes that I could relate to. There was nothing I could take as a metaphor for my experiences as a living creature.

Sufjan Steven's music is one of the few things that make me feel differently about Christianity. I only grew to appreciate Christmas music after listening to Songs for Christmas, for example. Most of Sufjan's albums express his beliefs in one way or another, and this is particularly true of Seven Swans. It was released back in 2004 by Sounds Familyre, and what struck me the most about it was how intimate it sounded. Whereas Sufjan's albums normally have their share of sophisticated orchestral songs alongside quieter numbers with the banjo, Seven Swans is sparse in its entirety. Even epic songs like "Seven Swans" have more room to breathe. This isn't to say the other albums aren't brilliant--it's just that, as a whole, Seven Swans is indeed more understated.

I'm no musician though, so I'm not going to attempt to describe the music here. I'm not going to do a song-by-song analysis either. I just want to explain what this album conveys to me. The opener, "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands," is a great example of why the Christian elements in the music don't bother me in the least. In fact, without them, the album would lose much of its impact.

I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
Will I be invited to the sound?
Will I be a part of what you've made?
And I am throwing all my thoughts away
And I'm destroying every bet I've made
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I'm preparing every part for you

Along with the music, these lyrics express to me a longing to be connected to everything, to feel alive. Up until now, I wasn't aware that the title of the song came from Isaiah 55:12: "For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." These verses too sound beautiful to me. But doing a quick Google search, I found people claiming they were about the second coming of Christ, something I have a hard time relating to, unless we have a nonliteral, pantheistic interpretation of the bible that is far from mainstream, and which would turn the Christian God into Spinoza's God. My point is that I can definitely see how there is a desire for resignation and surrender in the song, but I never thought it was about some external event at all. I never associated it with the second coming of Christ, at least not if taken literally, but with life here and now. I perceive Sufjan to be singing about a longing to feel at home with himself, with this strange creature that has come about due to forces greater than any one of us. It's irrelevant whether those forces are identified as God or simply as nature. The feelings are the same.

My problems with Hinduism and Buddhism are related to their rejection of attachment and their concept of "righteous path." When it comes to Christianity, my contention is similar: I don't like the idea of sin, of telling people what they should do with their lives. But Seven Swans never sounds moralistic. As I have explained, when the songs have Christian elements in them, they are about a personal relationship with God. They are about longing, reverence, confusion, and so on. No one is judged. The album is amazing, and I say this without having even mentioned the songs that are less about religion and more about relationships with other human beings.

The second song, "The Dress Looks Nice on You," is about a girl. In concert, Sufjan tells little stories before each song he plays. He often changes them around, so you never know if the stories are fictional or not, but he used to say this song was about an eighteen year old girl he befriended when he was fourteen. She would take him shopping, but whenever she asked him what he thought of a piece of clothing she was trying on, he'd look at her and say, "Errr..." That's why he wrote "The Dress Looks Nice on You" all those years later.

Another one of my favorites is "Size Too Small." In concert, he tells a story about the same friend. He says that, due to their age difference, they wanted different things out of life. Not too long later, she ended up finding a boyfriend through a dating agency, and they decided to get married. Everything seems to have happened pretty fast. In the end she picked Sufjan as the best man. The song, he says, is about how it felt to be at her wedding wearing a tuxedo that was a size too small. He sings, "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 /I still know you, the best man / I still owe you."

Another very personal song--and once again one of my favorites--is called "Sister." There is a long instrumental introduction that builds up until it breaks down into a delicate acoustic part:

What the waters wants is hurricanes
And sailboats to ride on its back
What the water wants is sun kiss
And land to run into and back

I have a fish stone burning my elbow
Reminding me to know that I'm glad
That I have a bottle filled with my own teeth
They fell out like a tear in the bag

And I have a sister somewhere in Detroit
She has black hair and small hands
And I have a kettle drum
I'll hit the earth with you

And I will crochet you a hat
And I have a red kite
I'll put you right in it
I'll show you the sky

I think that the way Sufjan ascribes desires to water, to forces of nature, conveys the feeling of inevitability I described earlier very well. And then he goes right back to very minute details, to little human things, which are smaller in scale only. They are a part of the "big plans" just like the larger things. He mentions his sister as if he hasn't heard from her in so long that he doesn't know where exactly she is anymore; then he recalls some of those things about the people we love that we always carry with us--the color of their eyes, their smile, their small hands. We long to see them, to know where they are, to ask if they are happy. At that point in the song, when the narrator confesses a series of deeply personal longings, we get the impression that we are all tiny creatures, each one of us with our own desires and our own dreams, in a world that seems to have more important concerns than being what we wish it to be, if it has any concerns at all. If we were to put this in religious terms, we'd have a God that works in ways we cannot always understand.

I think that this delicate balance sums up the whole album. On the one hand, we have our longings and our hopes, which make us who we are; we have a love for life that is a mix of resoluteness and awe for the fact that things exist just the way they are. On the other hand, the very world that has caused us to be here doesn't fulfill our yearnings, not completely. One of the reasons why Seven Swans works so well is that the religious songs merge seamlessly with the ones about earthly things like love, disappointment and loss. Sufjan makes them sound like they are really about the same thing. I'm an atheist, but Seven Swans portrays Christianity in a way I can relate to and respect. It is more about life than anything else.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to read. Nice to hear another's articulate thoughts about such an enthralling album.

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