Review Summary: soaring, levelling, angling down, piercing
I've always felt that Sufjan Stevens is an artist who takes sabbaticals. There's music he makes on commission, in collaboration, or just for the love of it, and then there's albums that communicate more directly and personally to the listener. It is perhaps this restless release pattern which keeps his "bigger" releases vital - for a major figure in the indie scene who rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, Sufjan's work has retained its power and he is still... well essential. Javelin
is a bright and bittersweet addition to his enduring legacy, and perhaps his work which speaks most directly about love.
seems to borrow from distinct parts of his catalogue - the ghostly vocal swirls and the muscular multicoloured explosions of The Age of Adz
jostle with the simple but layered cyclical patterns of Illinois
. The songs often build from the bright fingerpicking and melody of Carrie and Lowell
. And the subtle electronic shifts of opener 'Goodbye Evergreen' recalls 2020's somewhat underrated The Ascension
. Indeed, Javelin
's thematic arc almost extends from that prior album's brilliant emotional centrepiece 'Tell Me You Love Me', which explored the conditionality and limits of love (as well as working within the political framework ever present in that work).
Before I was aware of Sufjan's dedication of this album to his partner Evans Richardson (who passed away in April this year), I knew that this was an album laced with sadness. Even though the record's clear but soft production makes each cascade of picked guitar notes feel like lovingly intertwined fingers, Sufjan's voice strains against its small loveliness. No other record in his collection feels as suffused with such immediacy, and this is at its most naked in highlight 'Will Anybody Ever Love Me?'. The song sings back to Sufjan, soft replies or harmonies, layers of flute and banjo, and lush electronic dynamics at the end, but central to it is always his searching, tired vocal. I'm not sure if he could predict how this year would turn out with his diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome and a long road of hard work to regain his life, but coupled with his tragic loss, the song takes on a new meaning and will probably break your heart.
The record does suffer a little in the middle - despite the beautiful production and layering, 'Everything that rises' does sound like the DNA of the song is perhaps too close to other works in his back catalogue, and I would have liked to see a few more songs that didn't follow a similar structure. This album doesn't have as many memorable highlights as 2010's The Age of Adz
, although it reads easier as a whole. However, the subtle peak of 'My Red Little Fox' will stand as one of his best - Sufjan finds a ballroom hidden in the act of trying not to hide.
I'm not sure what the final act of '*** Talk' is about, but it does sound like someone saying goodbye; saying they don't want to waste time; saying that life goes on. It's easy to read too much into a song with hindsight, but when I really
listen to it, I feel a massive wave pass through me, a sense of earned truth. I'm listening to it now, and I want to hug the person I love a little tighter when she wakes.