The ability of this guy to gracefully articulate a personal spirituality is on the level of Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen. Banjo and acoustic guitar take prominence here but they often get overshadowed by organ, synths or electric guitar through the course of a song so that what starts out as simple, minimalist 1970s voice & strumming may end in a rousing symphony, with many stages in between. Yet both lyrics and music remain accessible throughout. Fragile at times but never precious, the sound resonates on mystical and magical wavelengths.
Although many of the songs have intricate and complex arrangements, two distinct styles seem to characterize the album. The acoustic guitar type includes That Dress Looks Nice On You, the yearning To Be Alone With You, the somber Abraham, Size Too Small and A Good Man Is Hard To Find. They at least all commence with guitar before evolving into multilayered soundscapes and are generally of a slower tempo, often containing brooding vocals. One hears faint echoes of Nick Drake or even James Taylor - the introspective singer-songwriter archetype.
The Banjo-driven numbers exhibit a more ecstatic type of devotional expression, tending to be on the mid to uptempo side with addictive melodious and percussive textures. The mood varies sharply, from the exultant praise of All The Trees Of The Field through the eerie track In The Devil's Territory with its ominous synth patterns to the hopeful We Won't Need Legs To Stand with its atmospheric synth-scapes. Plus you get the comforting and reassuring He Woke Me Up Again, the intense Seven Swans with its eschatological imagery and the pure ecstatic joy of The Transfiguration.
The melancholy track Sister is in a category of its own: electric guitars with echo and twangs are joined by choral voices for a long instrumental intro on a gently lilting beat until the almost whispered male vocal arrives and the arrangement takes another turn. I was reminded of Michael Gira's first Angels Of Light album.
The absolute highlights are He Woke Me Up with its tender oneiric quality, stirring organ and haunting backing vocals not unlike the track Warm on The Great Annihilator by Swans, the title track where the still, small voice of the Lord triggers a rousing choral exuberance, and the majestic Transfiguration.
I love Seven Swans much more than the admittedly brilliant Illinois. This is not rock music and hardly folk either, nor gospel at all. I would say it has a multifaceted devotional essence which expresses itself via a rich variety of styles whilst remaining perfectly cohesive. The effect is uplifting, inspiring and psychologically salubrious, like the Balm of Gilead.