SUFJAN STEVENS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Tuesday (November 16). $14. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Belief in a higher power - particularly in the current partisan climate in the U.S. - can be used to justify some pretty shady ends. While the religious right is banning gay marriage and rocking the vote in the red states, folks with a more secular bent may find themselves raising their eyebrows when God comes into the conversation.
For those whose expressions of faith are motivated by something far more heartfelt and personal, it's a quandary. How do they reconcile their own beliefs with a movement of extremists who warp humanist values for their own ends?
Sufjan Stevens's newest album, Seven Swans - a stunning set of delicate, introspective indie folk unabashedly based on Biblical narratives and Stevens's own relationship with Jesus - is winning raves even in the typically cynical mainstream music press.
But though the Michigan-bred, Brooklyn-based songwriter admits he has a tough time wrapping his head around the dogma of the Christian Coalition, he emphasizes that his is not a softer take on Christianity.
"My motive is not to represent a side of anything that might be more appealing or more accessible to a more liberal, enlightened and educated audience," he insists over the phone from a tour stop in San Diego.
"It's hard to reconcile my personal beliefs with an entire institution like the Church or the Republicans. Or with people within those political persuasions who have such different ideologies but confess the same things I confess spiritually.
"I think it's similarly frustrating for Muslims, (who are) being understood generally by parts of the world as violent fanatic martyrs, whereas the majority of Muslims are actually very interested in being part of society and being peaceful and loving.
"Oh, man," he sighs. "It's the difference between faith and religion."
It may not have been his goal, but the grace with which Stevens expresses his deep spirituality resonates on a profound level, regardless of the listener's religious affiliation.
A sometime member of the Danielson Famile (tree-wearing Famile leader Daniel Smith recorded and hand-picked the tracks on Seven Swans, and released it on his own Sounds Familyre label), Stevens doesn't water down his themes, centring candid narratives about Christ's mysterious transfiguration and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in hushed, hymnal arrangements of acoustic guitar and banjo, backed by occasional choral swells.
Like Royal City's Aaron Riches, Stevens's lyrical strength - he studied creative writing at the New School - is his ability to make even the most transcendental ideas concrete by couching them in specific terms, and to renew archetypal narratives by telling them from fresh perspectives.
That skill provided psychological depth to the aural geography of his previous recording, Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (the first of a planned album series covering all 50 states). It adds similar weight to Seven Swans, particularly on the tune A Good Man Is Hard To Find, told from the point of view of the Misfit - the Mephistophelean antagonist of the famous Flannery O'Connor short story.
"I'm interested in seeing things through unusual perspectives," Stevens confesses. "I find there's a tension between abstractions and particulars in all writing. I'm focused on the particulars, on everyday objects and what they represent. Like an ironing board or a down comforter or a hanger.
"Those things can have enormous political meanings, and they can represent entire cultures and regions - they can be very Chicago or very New York or very Midwestern - but only if they're first and foremost an article of possession that means something to someone personally."
Not surprisingly, Stevens is fixated on language. He chooses his words painstakingly in conversation and asks for clarification if he's the slightest bit confused about a question.
This attention to the word (and the Word) is why he can't stand lazy labelling. Ask him about the current trend to lump together spiritually informed, acoustic-based musicians like him, Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart (also playing this week - see CD reviews, page 70) into some weird "new folk" movement and Stevens gets riled up.
"Musicians are often asked to answer for an entire culture, or for an entire movement," he states. "It's a process of commodification. It becomes packaged and summarized in a word like 'emo' or 'grunge' or 'folk music.' I think that's just language itself, trying to understand the mysteries of the world.
"If you look at Bob Dylan, you'll see someone who was pigeonholed and pegged as the political voice of that generation, and he spent his whole life resisting, reacting to and rebelling against that. In some ways, it ruined him creatively - and probably personally as well."