Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – Javelin

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2023]

The songs of Sufjan Stevens are mirrors, cast in all shapes and sizes, reflective of ordinary things and celestial things and moments torn apart by love and misery and the absence of affection. Few artists can convey the gravity of everyday experiences quite like he can. And when faced with catastrophe, concrete or abstract, the emotional reckoning of mundane choices can feel like a tidal wave, dislocating every bone and memory and relationship within reach. Over the years, these sonic upheavals have taken on various appearances: devastated introversion, chaotic electrical alignment, dramatic conceptualizations, and spiritual affirmations.

We’ve heard him ascribe holiness to mundanity and find grace in a compelling musical chaos. His work is exposed, with little distance held between the intimate details of his life and the embrace of his listeners. For every detail he offers, every scrap of personal anguish explored and illuminated, we find more of ourselves in the foundations of his stories. Does his music reflect the tangles of our own lives, or do we simply respond instinctively to the candid revelations he so openly expresses? The starkness of his folk antiquities is as hypnotic as the frayed contours of his more electronically inclined experiments. He allows us to fall effortlessly into his various worlds, a collection of scenes concerned with personal yearning, regret, absolution, and the restless interiors of cardiac muscles.

Javelin pulls all the threads of his past albums together, resting halfway between whispered confession and electrically augmented therapy. To him, the past is a clinging beast, the present a weight to be shouldered, and the future some great mystery to be unraveled – and Javelin affords him the opportunity to wring considerable insight from the grievances of joy and heartache and the exultancies of love. The album coalesces around the idea of emotional acknowledgement and an awareness of change. Digging further into the singer-songwriter aesthetics of Seven Swans and Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has crafted an element of rare beauty, meticulously extracted from a host of sorrows, affections, and other confounding sentiments.

Opener “Goodbye Evergreen” speaks to love’s impermanence and to the beauty it sustains while lingering in our view. Considering Stevens’ recent Guillain-Barre Syndrome diagnosis, as well as the death of his longtime partner in April, the song takes on a deeper resonance. The softly struck piano leads into a clattering chaos, reminiscent of moments on The Age of Adz, messy and emotional and cathartic. Clockwork mechanisms chime and click while waves of turbulent voices churn under the gravity of his grief and resilience. “A Running Start” carries us swiftly long, adrift on plucked guitar and gently spoken details of tenderness and impressionistic landscapes and creatures and kisses yet received. Stevens is remembering the minutiae, the miracle of ordinary things, the fantastic spikes of endorphins and the longing for physical comfort. He’s holding tight to familiarity, clinging to its contours and recognizable angles.

There are moments when we all doubt our worth, doubt the possibility of happiness. This can happen when surrounded by multitudes of people or when we find ourselves at a distance from those we love. “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” finds Sufjan debating the potential for true connection over acoustic guitar and swelling strings, voices harmonized in prophetic movement. The music is playful despite its darker wavelengths, opining for hearts aflame and freely-given adoration. Words have always been miraculous things for Sufjan. We hear him consecrate them on “Everything that Rises”, a track that assigns divinity to language and the complexities of its intent. Spirituality and secular traditions have always vied for attention in his songs, concepts of holiness and worldliness locked in a spiral of expectations and musical brinksmanship. And this song, with its electronic folk aspirations, paints a picture of the vagaries of those alternating ideologies.

Sufjan speaks directly to his partner on “My Red Little Fox”, a song that traces the pitfalls and heightened sensations that come from finding refuge in such a close relationship. There’s a terrible prescience in a line like “just say what you want / say it out within / without that funny little cough”, signaling an awareness that all is not well within their emotional biome. There’s a baroque romanticism to the song, simple yet riven by unending emotions. “Kiss me with the fire of gods” he sings to his love, a plea that echoes with an intense helplessness. “Genuflecting Ghost” is a deceptively simple folk song – though Stevens’ full oeuvre might well be described as such. Self-sacrifice and hesitation live alongside love and acceptance, compounding themes built along acoustic fault lines. There’s a joyousness here, a heraldic anticipation that calls out to us from the center of its intricate environment.

But all is not anticipation and joy and unspoken moments of connection – there are times when terrible things creep into the periphery and love strains the bonds that have formed. “So You are Tired” speaks to vulnerability in the face of adversity and to those times when affection feels as though it will slip through our fingers. Choral harmonies bend and envelop orchestral folk musings, piano twinkling in the shadows and strings rising to meet the growing unrest. A short but powerful look at how we react to each other and the ways in which we approach conflict and resolution, “Javelin (To Have and To Hold)” makes a case that love is tenuous, a fragile thing capable of being rendered moot through chance or misguided words. Held aloft by sweetly plucked guitar, it’s a brief moment of reflection before we wander further inward.

“Shit Talk” is his way of accepting the inevitability of his own mortality, a letter to his ailing partner, and a reminder to himself to remember every moment. There is darkness: “I will always love you / but I cannot look at you”. He mourns that “our romantic second chance is dead” but insists that “I don’t wanna fight at all / I will always love you”, repeating it as a mantra to deal with the pain. The music is wild and beautiful and filled with horns and strings and all the things that he has at his disposal to make us weep at what might be lost. The album closes on “There’s a World”, a Neil Young cover that initially feels out of place but reveals itself as the light beyond the darkness. It’s a gorgeous rendition set by the weight of both the devastation and redemption he’s previously introduced. His voice climbs further and further above, circling his guitar until the stars are his home and the universe feels charged with love.