Album Reviews

Sufjan Stevens – Javelin

(Asthmatic Kitty) UK release date: 6 October 2023

Continuing his prolific run, this magical, magnificent album is both blissfully sad and gloriously uplifting

Sufjan Stevens - Javelin It feels like a long time since we last heard from Sufjan Stevens. In reality, he’s been impossible prolific since the release of one of his best albums, Carrie & Lowell, in 2015. There’s been a couple of more experimental albums, 2020’s The Ascension, collaborations with Angelo De Augustine, Bryce Dessner and his stepfather Lowell Brams, and a five disc instrumental mediation on the death of his birth father.

But straight from the sharp intake of breath which opens up Javelin’s first track, Goodbye Evergreen, this feels like Sufjan Stevens coming home. He’s returned to the fragile balladry of Carrie & Lowell mixed with the glorious arrangements of Seven Swans, but this isn’t a retread of past glories. Recorded with a small group of collaborators, including Dessner, this is Stevens on gloriously wistful form.

The release of Javelin comes with an added, unwanted, dose of poignancy of course. A couple of weeks before the record’s release, Stevens revealed that he’d been hospitalised with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and although he’s expected to make a full recovery, is currently in rehab while he learns to walk again.

It makes moments like the cacophony of instruments which slowly swells up on Goodbye Evergreen even more effective – it begins as a hush, and then, slowly, in a nod to Stevens’ work in The Age Of Adz, the instrumentation becomes more and more chaotic. This process of beginning softly and gently, and then slowly expanding the instrumentation is repeated several times through the album, often with some stunningly beautiful results.

Will Anybody Ever Love Me is a contender for most devastatingly gorgeous song of the year – all gently plucked banjos, with Stevens’ fragile falsetto playing off against a comforting group of backing singers. It’s so beautifully arranged that you’ll be convinced you won’t hear a better song all year – until about 10 minutes later, when My Little Red Fox starts.

For My Little Red Fox is both the quintessential Sufjan song while simultaneously sounding totally different to anything he’s done before – built on a lovely piano melody, the chorus gently soars with the help of his backing singers and evocative bells, ebbing and flowing until eventually shifting up a gear towards the end. The way that all the elements of the song, from the choral vocals to the understated electronica underpinning proceedings, come together is the work of a true master.

Lyrically, there’s no overarching theme as in Carrie & Lowell or the infamous ‘States of the USA’ albums. This time around, on tracks like A Running Start or So You Are Tired the lyrics, while being as obtuse as ever, seem to show a man contemplating the end of a relationship – a 14 year long one, as So You Are Tired talks about (“So you are seething with laughter, was it really all just a joke?”), while A Running Start is almost unbearably touching, with pleas to “ask you for a kiss… don’t go, my lovely pantomime”). If the music wasn’t so uniformly bewitching, it would be hard to listen to.

As ever, there’s a fair amount of religious imagery in Stevens’ lyrics. Genuflecting Ghost is probably the most explicitly spiritual moment, pleading to see Paradise, while Christ even gets a namecheck on Everything That Rises – “Jesus lift me up to a higher plane, can you come around before I go insane”. Yet it’s never preachy or moralising, just the sound of Stevens desperately looking for some kind of comfort.

It’s the sort of album where your favourite track will probably change on every listen – one time, it may be the title track with its attention-grabbing opening line of “searching through the snow, for the javelin I had not meant to throw right at you”. At other times it could be the ambitious, eight and a half minute epic that is Shit Talk, that takes the listener through so many emotions over its lengthy running time that you end up feeling quite drained by the end. There’s even a rare cover version to round off the record – Neil Young‘s There’s A World, which, of course, Stevens effortlessly makes his own in less than three minutes.

Javelin is the sound of Sufjan Stevens at the peak of his considerable powers. It’s a record that’s both blissfully sad, and gloriously uplifting. It’s immediately accessible, yet complex enough to stand up to countless repeated plays, with the only bittersweet caveat being that, given Stevens’ current health problems, we’re unlikely to hear these songs in the live arena for some time. Even without an accompanying tour though, this is a magical, magnificent album – one of the best of Sufjan Stevens’ career.

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More on Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens – Javelin
Sufjan Stevens – Reflections
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister – Planetarium
Sufjan Stevens @ Royal Festival Hall, London