Yesterday was Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. Sitting in the Synagogue for the family service, and reading the story of Abraham, I was struck by the brutality of the tale. God tells some bloke to kill his son, and then lets him off at the last minute, just as Abraham is about to plunge the knife in? That’s harsh. Innumerable scholars, writers, artists and atheists wandering into Synagogues on High Holy days have thought long and hard about what the tale has to tell.
Me, I thought about Sufjan Stevens. And Dan Simmons too, who, in the fantastic SF book “Hyperion” wrote about a character obsessed with the tale. But with Sufjan, it’s all about his track “Abraham”, from his album “Seven Swans”.
Now, most of you may know Sufjan from songs like “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!”; huge, baroque masterpieces with guitar, drums, piano, bongos, string sections, trombones, clarinets, bassinets, ocelots, trombones, cowbells, cows, banjos, mandolins, and possibly a harpsichord too, all in a jaunty 13/5 time signature. But “Seven Swans” is entirely different; many songs just feature his plaintive, emotional singing and simple acoustic guitar1. It shows yet another face of one of the most talented musicians to come along in the last decade.
“Abraham” is one of the simplest tracks; two verses, telling simply the tale of Abraham’s terrible predicament and its resolution (Spoiler: The ram gets it). It’s sparse, and spare, and utterly beautiful; it also got stuck in my head so much that I had to play it as soon as I got in the car. And again on the Tube on the way to the match. And again on the way back. You get the idea.
A few tracks on comes another overtly religious number, “He Woke Me Up Again”. More lively than the earlier songs, featuring an organ and drums, it tells of his religious re-awakening. Now, I’m not a religious man by any means (thirteen years of Catholic schools will do that to a man), and many religious songs can be tedious in the extreme, but this is wonderful. It makes me want to run off to the nearest Church and repent all my sins. Ok, maybe not.
He shows that you can be an openly religious musician, and not suck. See, Bono? Creed? Stryper?2 Two marvellous songs from an album you really should check out. Shana Tova!
1 Simple, that is, until you try to play it. He really is a rather talented chap. If you ever get a chance to see him doing a solo acoustic show, beg, borrow or steal a ticket, it’s a great night out. And his in-between song banter is utterly charming.
2 Ok, I know there are plenty of soul and country musicians who are openly religious; for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to get in the way of being damned fine musicians. But it seems to be much harder in the pop and rock world.