Sufjan Stevens: Javelin Album Review



    Once when Sufjan Stevens was in college, he brought an injured crow to the biology lab to help save its life. “You are doing the universe a great favor,” a woman who ran an animal sanctuary told him once he called her to the scene. This is one of several stories Stevens tells in his 10-part essay included in the elaborate physical edition of his latest album, Javelin, all in service of exploring his ever-expanding definition of “love.” He writes in an inquisitive and self-aware tone, joking about how that experience with the crow provided “endless fodder” for his collegiate creative writing: “So much meaning, so little time,” he reflects. But if a young Sufjan once sought these encounters for their symbolic potential, the present-day writer of this essay, and of these songs, tells a more pressing story: even more meaning, even less time.

    Over and over again on Javelin, Stevens contemplates the end. Sometimes his language, along with the hushed longing of his voice and the romantic sweep of his largely acoustic instrumentation, points toward the demise of a very long relationship. “I will always love you/But I cannot look at you,” he explains, tracing the broken logic governing the loss. “It’s a terrible thought to have and hold,” he admits after wishing ill to someone he once held dear. “Will anybody ever love me?” he asks in the aftermath.

    Instantly, the songwriting feels as raw and direct as ever. And indeed, Javelin is Stevens’ first proper album in a long time that seems designed with no grand concept to unify the material or inspire theatrical adaptations; no autobiographical insight to make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about him; no jarring musical change-ups to remind you he is a proud member of the Beyhive. Running under 45 minutes, Javelin begins with a deliberate inhale and ends with a cover of a deep cut from Neil Young’s best-selling album—a track that Stevens manages to make sound even sweeter and more hopeful than the 1972 original.

    Like much of his defining work, Stevens wrote, recorded, and produced Javelin almost entirely alone, minus a few key appearances: some guitar from the National’s Bryce Dessner in the dazzling eight-minute “Shit Talk,” and frequent vocal accompaniment from a small choir that includes Megan Lui, Hannah Cohen, Pauline Delassus, Nedelle Torrisi, and the activist and writer adrienne maree brown. It’s got at least one song that instantly joins the ranks of his very best (“Will Anybody Ever Love Me?”) and plenty that draw direct lines to previous high-water marks, both thematically and musically. Centering the devotional melodies and heart-tugging intimacy that characterized his early masterpieces, it’s the type of record, two decades into an artist’s career, that tends to be called a “return-to-form,” suggesting an embrace of his strengths and a diminished instinct to surprise or provoke.

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