Sufjan Steven’s “Seven Swans” a Lyric Study

Sufjan Stevens’ “Seven Swans” is one of many legendary indie folk albums from the Michigan native.  Some call this his most vulnerable album, though it is definitely his most spiritual.  The album is a must listen, and we will study the lyrics of the title track.

“Seven Swans”

We didn’t sleep too late. 
There was a fire in the yard.
All of the tress were in light.
They had no faces to show.

I saw a sign in the sky:
Seven swans, seven swans, seven swans.
I heard a voice in my mind:
“I will try, I will try, I will try.
I will try, I will try, I will try.”

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.”

He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you.
He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you.
Cause he is the Lord.

This was the opening of Sufjan Steven’s tour in 2010.  The ominous banjo was accompanied by a projection of tiny little stars on a large screen behind the band.  All lights were turned down except for a spotlight on Sufjan, and the flickering of reflected lights from the large projection screen.  That specific performance in Asheville, NC was one of the best concert experiences in my life.  Sufjan has such a strong sense of tone throughout every aspect of his art. Let’s dive deeper.

Form

  1. Rhyme Scheme – No technical rhyme scheme, though its worth noting that repetition sometimes guises itself as a rhyme. See “I will try…”, “I am Lord…”, and “He will take you…He will chase you.” So how does this lack of scheme lend itself to the structure and effectiveness of the song? Well, some songwriters and poets, believe that meter is a more effective tool in creating a sense of rhythm without distracting from the actual meaning of the words spoken or sung. Thought I can’t lie that a good rhyme scheme in a song is like butter on freshly baked bread; a great pair.
  2. Meter – Here we find the definitive structure of the song. rigid syllabic counts on each line.  Can you guess how many syllables per line? That’s right. Seven. With the exception of the “I will/I am…”  lines and the last stanza has a few lines in the four to five range.  Obviously, this is no mistake. Stevens creates a unique syllable structure to mirror the thematic elements of the song; seven being the classic number in revelation representing God. It lends to a unique rhythm that pairs well with the lone banjo and delicate vocals. Have you ever tried writing a poem with strict syllables per line? It’s difficult.
  3. Devices/Diction – Repetition creates a beautiful contrast in “Seven Swans.” In the first example we see, “I will try,” versus the second example of “I am Lord,” we can see the comparison of humanity to deity.  He shows that in his own mind, he has a finite limitation in what he can do, but the Lord has no limitation, he is infinite and powerful, as per the wonderful and terrible imagery that Stevens portrays.  Dragons, Swans, people being burned to bits, and great fires. Yikes. The tone, again, controlled through specific word choices. The feeling that we felt in that auditorium in Asheville, was majestic and terrifying. Repitition, contrast, fantastic imagery, all performed at a master level.

Themes

  1. Revelation – Sufjan has been known to stretch the truth and we’ll talk about this later, but at the concert he explained how this was a song about how lightening struck a tree in their backyard and it caught fire. Their father woke them all up to witness it, and then the fire spread into the yard and the image of Seven Swans appeared in the sky playing John Phillip Sousa on trumpets. Whether or not this story is true doesn’t quite matter. What matters is the depiction of the fantastic and the extroardinary in life. Some moments are things we will remember forever. Some of them change our lives. I’ll add too, that some might deny or be skeptical of these moments. I’m not sure that it matters to Sufjan. He seems to concern himself with the revelatory nature of what he finds in the God he follows, or rather, the God that reveals himself.
  2. Sovereignty of God – We’ve already gone over the frightening images of dragons and burning people, so it goes without saying that this shows fearful representation of God.  This God has the power to destroy and uses it as he pleases.  He chases, he takes, he burns, He is Lord.
  3. Storytelling – This is an interesting one. As I stated earlier, Sufjan is known to stretch the truth on his songs. He doesn’t really like to delve too deep into what his songs mean, lest he ruin the enjoyment of interpretation for the audience. So he tends to explain much like the Joker explains where he got his scars. He changes the story every time, though he does keep some central points consistent. However, the main objective Sufjan has in his songs is to be sure to tell a good story by making a good song. Interpretation is left to the audience, and whatever point he tries to get accross is secondary to the form of the piece. He’s said that he doesn’t believe faith is worth discussing publicly as it is a private matter, though he writes intensely spiritual and personal songs about his faith. This creates a great deal of mystique around him. Just as soon as we feel like we can pin him down, he goes off and creates a concept album based around electronic sound and an obscure artist, then turns back around goes back to write a folk album about his parents. He loves to tell stories, and even likes shaping his own.

Sufjan Stevens has been a huge influence on my creative self in how he is bold enough to instill his worldview into his art without compromising form or content. It can be done, and this song exemplifies it.  I strive to do the same.

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One thought on “Sufjan Steven’s “Seven Swans” a Lyric Study

  1. Pingback: Panning for Gold – Christian Music | The Worship Collective

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