Singer-songwriter Sufjan ("Soof-yahn") Stevens probably never dreamed that last year's unassuming Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State would become a word-of-mouth and underground-press sensation: The album—Stevens' third—floated lazily through downer indie-folk, dreamy instrumental sequences, and perky, playful interludes, all while following a loose lyrical thread about his home state. It's a strange and engaging collection, but not a particularly cohesive one. While the toots and layers provided something to latch on to, they took up space where more of his gentle, simple songwriting could have been. On Seven Swans, that's not a problem.
Stripped of almost everything save Stevens' voice, guitar, and banjo, his fourth album finds strength in the softest places. Like Nick Drake or, more recently, Damien Jurado, Stevens serves his songs best with near-whispers, delicately breathing them into existence. Another obvious contemporary would be Iron & Wine: Seven Swans' opening track, "All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands," weaves the same sort of banjo-voice composition Sam Beam has perfected.
The only possible stumble on an otherwise softly engaging album may be the lyrics, as Stevens takes the potentially alienating route of interpolating Christian imagery into his songs, no surprise given that the album's only guest musicians are members of The Danielson Famile. The religious moments range from overtly obvious ("Abraham" tells the story of, um, Abraham) to slightly subtler ("To Be Alone With You" may or may not be about Jesus), but they generally feel more exploratory than preachy. And, since they're etched into such sweetly sad tablets, a slightly heavy hand can be easily forgiven.