Oftentimes, the difference between a good cover and a great cover can be boiled down to a simple question: does the artist make the song their own? This writer figured out the difference at a young age thanks to Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” at the beginning of The Wonder Years every week. Good covers are simply covers; great covers are reimaginings.
This distinction is captured beautifully in Seven Swans Reimagined, and the title is a perfectly accurate one. This various-artists project from On Joyful Wings is not merely a tribute to the Sufjan Stevens album, but a complete redirection of all the beauty that Stevens imbued it with in the first place. The artists include a few Cover Me favorites like Wakey!Wakey! and Bonnie “Prince” Billy and some of Stevens’ labelmates from Asthmatic Kitty (Shannon Stephens, Half-Handed Cloud).
The artists’ familiarity with Stevens’ songs and their collective experience with creating excellent covers shines through on this album. Seven Swans often receives one of two reactions from critics, possibly both at once: it is, as a whole, his most stripped-down, simplistically beautiful album; simultaneously, and perhaps fittingly, it is also his most overtly Christian-themed album. Such being the case, it is musically rife with opportunity for creative renditions and is a perfect fit for the On Joyful Wings project. The project began when its creators were participating in the Komen Walk for the Cure, assembling the We Were Lost, We Were Free compilation in late 2009 to raise additional funds for breast cancer research.
Some of the covers channel elements of Stevens’ body of work that are present essentially everywhere other than Seven Swans, while others bring their own flavor entirely. Half-Handed Cloud’s bouncy “He Woke Me Up Again,” oscillating between saloon piano and multi-instrumentality, is reminiscent of the eclectic Americana of Illinois and The Avalanche, while the electro vibe on tracks like Derek Webb’s “In the Devil’s Territory” and DM Stith’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” feel more like last year’s The Age of Adz.
The album is so thorough as to include the Seven Swans rarities “I Went Dancing With My Sister,” “Waste of What Your Kids Won’t Have” (both from the original vinyl’s bonus 7”) and “Borderline” (from the 7” The Dress Looks Nice on You single). “Borderline,” covered by Inlets, is among the few low points, with vocals flowing in the same cadence as the original, overlaid (albeit beautifully) upon reed instruments. The same issue could be found with tracks like “He Woke Me Up Again” and Carl Hauck’s “Seven Swans,” were it not for the fact that there’s so much going on musically that simply isn’t present in the original. In the same way that “He Woke Me Up Again” feels like Stevens wandered into a zany, old-timey saloon, “Seven Swans” feels like some kind of Pink Floyd-infused jazz lounge. These covers feel like beautiful afterthoughts, creating little in the space provided for them by the originals. This, however, is not a negative element, but a testament to the high bar set by the sum effect of this tribute album.
This bar is lifted by tracks like Damion Suomi’s bluesy “Abraham,” and the aforementioned electro-popped “In the Devil’s Territory.” Joshua James’s “To Be Alone with You” is a magnificent arrangement of piano, strings, and bass drum that somehow manages to make the necessary break from the original while still incorporating the whimpering background vocals that are so uniquely Stevens. Wakey!Wakey! brings the other stripped, piano-heavy cover with “Size Too Small,” somehow tying it all together with organs and a strand of sci-fi synth.
Seven Swans Reimagined can perhaps be described best as a series of tours through a land where Stevens is cartographer and urban planner, architect and philosopher-king. Each artist-as-guide knows the lay of the land; the real successes lie in those who have become so familiar with it as to tell their own stories.
Seven Swans Reimagined Tracklist
01. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands [listen here]
02. The Gregory Brothers – The Dress Looks Nice on You
03. Derek Webb – In the Devil’s Territory
04. Joshua James – To Be Alone with You
05. Damion Suomi – Abraham
06. Unwed Sailor – Sister
07. Wakey!Wakey! – Size Too Small
08. Elin K. Smith – We Won’t Need Legs to Stand
09. DM Stith – A Good Man is Hard to Find
10. Half-Handed Cloud – He Woke Me Up Again
11. Carl Hauck – Seven Swans
12. David Crowder*Band – The Transfiguration
13. Jason Harrod – I Went Dancing With My Sister
14. Shannon Stephens with Gregory Paul – Waste of What Your Kids Won’t Have
15. Inlets – Borderline