Sufjan Stevens, “Javelin”

Dipping into both the chamber-folk balladry of his early career and his later electronic experimentation, Stevens’ 10th LP is a whispered statement that yells its intentions into the void.

Sufjan Stevens, Javelin

Dipping into both the chamber-folk balladry of his early career and his later electronic experimentation, Stevens’ 10th LP is a whispered statement that yells its intentions into the void.

Words: Kyle Lemmon

October 09, 2023

Sufjan Stevens

Across 10 albums and countless side projects, Sufjan Stevens’ inimitable whispering vocals are the only constant throughline. Various genre costume changes, Christmas LPs, abandoned conceptual stunts, and unexpected moonlighting gigs with musical industry friends color the margins, but Stevens’ personal and spiritual life inform his central themes—and when those two sides of himself collide is when he creates his most enduring music.

In the lead up to the release of Javelin, his first proper LP as a singer-songwriter in eight years, Stevens has been physically struck down with a rare and immobilizing disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, while earlier this year his partner Evans Richardson IV (to whom Javelin is dedicated) passed away. Stevens’ recent flurry of social media posts, much like the 48 pages of heart-melting essays about love and illness that accompany the new album, showcase his longtime ability to make even his most unique life experiences so immediately relatable. He renders his current health and emotional battles with a fragile and beautiful light that can sometimes approach raw-nerve comedy or spiritual philosophy. It’s yet another reminder that when Stevens encounters adversity he puts it through his unique artistic lens and his soft-spoken vocals are just as strong as a yell. With this new context, Javelin is a whispered statement that screams its intentions into the void.

Stevens’ discography now spans over 20 years, beginning with chamber-folk balladry before shifting to panoramic symphonic-pop and all manner of electronic experimentation. His two releases after the landmark 2015 LP Carrie & Lowell have not aged as well as Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois, or The Age of Adz, but The Ascension and Convocations serve just as much of a purpose as his oddball and high-concept collaborations with his stepfather Lowell Brams (Aporia) and fellow folk whisperer Angelo De Augustine (A Beginner’s Mind). Both provided more colors to pull from for the next blank canvas.

Meanwhile, the reliable woodwinds that colored much of Stevens’ 2000 debut A Sun Came are welcome returning guests on several Javelin tracks. Many of these new acoustic songs feel like they’re melodies caught in a production slipstream, which gives them a propulsive quality that recent tracks sorely lacked. This is apparent on the first single, “So You Are Tired,” a breathy ballad about a disintegrating relationship: “The man still in love with you / When I already knew it was done,” Stevens sings, adding a droplet of acid to your heart. Naturally, the Bible continues to color some themes as well. The title track references the story of Saul trying to spear David, and it’s masterfully simple in its horrific descriptions: “For if it had hit its mark / There’d be blood in the place / Where you stood.”

Stevens reopens the Good Book again on “Everything That Rises”—“Jesus, lift me up to a higher plane / Can you come around before I go insane?”—and circles back to this sentiment on the airy “Genuflecting Ghost,” both of which inhabit darker spiritual places than we heard on Seven Swans. The longest song by a wide margin is the epic “Shit Talk,” which features longtime collaborator Bryce Dessner of The National. The track touches on romantic love, but the love of Christ and his wandering children could also be part of the discussion when approaching the lyrics from another angle (“I will always love you / But I cannot look at you”).

Despite its spirituality, Javelin is a more expansive successor to Seven Swans, since Stevens takes his lovesick melodies and shoots them through with human rawness and production techniques he’s refined from nearly a quarter century of electronic experimentation. That being said, a romantic love can easily be swapped in for a spiritual one, as both can be dangerous cocktails of tender emotions.

This strong set of nine original songs (and one Neil Young cover: a beautiful acoustic version of Harvest’s most overwrought and plodding studio track, “There’s a World”) contains some of the songwriter’s most restrained efforts. This is something we haven’t heard from Sufjan since the pre-Illinois era—it’s encouraging to hear it again, and we welcome the next era in his storied career after he’s stronger on both a physical and emotional level.