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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Sufjan Stevens' newest album is a 'Javelin' through the heart

Prolific singer-songwriter and Grammy nominee Sufjan Stevens has returned to his indie-folk roots for his newest full-length release “Javelin.”Stevens, most famous for his work on the “Call Me By Your Name” movie soundtrack, has a propensity for writing concept albums on, well, you name it: states, the Bible and Christmas, the animals of the Chinese zodiac, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, horror movies, etc. But sometimes, Stevens diverges from epic all-encompassing albums to write about his own life. In his most devastating releases, Stevens writes about the death of his mother (“Carrie & Lowell”) and father (“Convocations”). Unfortunately, Stevens’ newest release “Javelin” fits under the same, seemingly perpetual, rain cloud of grief that plagues the singer’s life.  

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On Oct. 6, the release date of “Javelin,” Stevens announced on Instagram that the album is dedicated to his late partner Evans Richardson, who passed away in April. In the caption, Stevens writes Richardson “was one of those rare and beautiful ones you find only once in a lifetime—precious, impeccable, and absolutely exceptional in every way.”Stevens’ love and grief are deftly balanced throughout the album. The lyrics range from melancholic goodbyes (“I’m frightened of the end”) and regret (“A terrible cost / For all that we’ve left undone / Deliver me from everything / I’ve put off / And all that we’ve lost”) to dejected acceptance (“I was the man still in love with you / When I already knew it was done”). Yet, “Javelin” may be one of the happiest-sounding Stevens albums to date with maximalist choral, orchestral and electronic additions in the production. To be fair, Stevens seems to be coping well. On top of losing Richardson, Stevens was recently immobilized by a rare autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome and has been regaining his mobility in the hospital. He has given his fans regular updates on Tumblr about his progress, and while his attitude swings, he never fails to sign off without an uplifting affirmation and tons of XOs. If “Javelin” had to have a concept, I would say Stevens reimagines himself as Cupid. But in this version of the story, Cupid’s arrow becomes a spear. In the album’s titular song, “Javelin (To Have and To Hold),” he writes he is searching for the javelin in the snow because “if it had hit its mark / There’d be blood in the place where [his lover] stood.” Love is a calamity you have the agency to save people from.  My favorite thing about Stevens is his ability to take the most horrible parts of the human experience and hold them gently in the palm of his hands, like a bird he once saved in college. The final song of the album is an incredibly uplifting cover of Neil Young’s “There’s A World,” where Stevens sings “There’s a world you’re living in / No one else has your part / All God’s children in the wind / Take it in and blow real hard.” When I listen, suddenly, I can feel the wind on my face. I take in the words with the knowledge that we should appreciate the brief and beautiful flicker of existence we have on this Earth. I breathe in the love of the world and then let it go. Before “Javelin” was released and before Stevens announced he was in the hospital, I wrote in a blank Google Doc: “If the upcoming album takes after its name at all, Stevens’ success will rely on a combination of strength, power, coordination, precision and timing that define javelin throwing.” I would say he nailed it.