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Love and loss in Sufjan Stevens’ new album

On ‘Javelin’, Sufjan Stevens keeps returning to the idea of endings—of relationships and life itself—with a new-found urgency

Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens

The liner notes for Javelin, the 10th studio album by avant-folk balladeer Sufjan Stevens, contain 10 heartfelt mini-essays penned by the musician, an accounting of his many loves but also of love itself—what it means, the different forms it takes over the course of a life well-lived. The essays are as cryptic and allusive as Stevens’ lyricism, little snatches of autobiographical insight juxtaposed with philosophical musings on God and consciousness and sci-fi scenes of alien abductions and womb-like cocoons.

But the titles of the 10 essays, taken together, spell out a more straightforward message: “My love is a weapon thrown onto the oblivion of your body.” This is a reference to the album’s title, of course, but also a clue to the themes that Stevens endlessly obsesses over on this painfully raw, soul-stirringly intimate record: love, loss and our inevitable mortality.

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These are themes that have long run through the work of the self-described “poster child of pain, loss, and loneliness”. The Detroit, US, native has crafted deep explorations of love—both devotional and personal—on albums such as the folk and Christian spiritual- influenced Seven Swans (2004) and the experimental electro-pop record The Age Of Adz (2010). Eight years ago, on the sparse and mournful Carrie & Lowell (2015), he grappled with childhood trauma and the death of his mother over stripped-down folk instrumentation. On Javelin, Stevens keeps returning to the idea of endings—of relationships and life itself—with a new-found urgency.

The musician has dedicated the record to his long-time partner Evans Richardson IV, who passed on six months ago, and recently announced that he’s recovering from a serious auto-immune disorder that landed him in the hospital for two weeks. He’s currently undergoing physiotherapy to literally “learn to walk again”. It’s hard to say definitively whether these developments directly influenced the making of Javelin. Stevens’ lyrics rarely offer a linear, autobiographical narrative. But they add to the sense that this is a record by an artist whose search for meaning feels suddenly more pressing as he realises he’s running out of time.

The opener Goodbye Evergreen begins with finger-plucked guitar, as Stevens whispers that “everything heaven sent/ must burn out in the end”. A minute in, it explodes into technicolour pyrotechnics, all industrial percussion and washed-out synths. “Goodbye Evergreen, you know I love you,” he sings in farewell, raising his voice to cut through the noise of his own creation.

So You Are Tired starts out similarly, with Stevens recounting the acrimonious end of a relationship over light-touch piano, before swelling synths and a soaring, anthemic chorale bring it to a vibrant crescendo.

Many of the songs on the album follow the same path, from simple and desolate beginnings to more complex compositions and brighter sonics, as Stevens expertly interweaves emotionally devastating lyricism into uplifting musical tapestries. Faith, never far from Stevens’ thoughts, also features on tracks like Genuflecting Ghost, where he offers himself up as a sacrifice to the whims of an insecure God (or is it a lover?).

In Will Anybody Ever Love Me?—a career highlight—he wonders if he’s even worthy of love, divine or human. “Tie me to the final wooden stake/ Burn my body, celebrate the afterglow,” he sings over lush, pastoral banjo and fiddle. Never has anyone called for their own immolation with such serenity and bliss. This musical beauty has a point. Even at his lowest, full of doubt and self-recrimination, Stevens never discounts the possibility of hope. Though rooted in despair, his songs climb towards the light.

One exception is the eight-minute Shit Talk, which features guitar by The National’s Bryce Dessner. Over transcendental swells of brass, woodwind and choral harmonies, Stevens sings of the terrifying reality that love alone cannot save a crumbling relationship, before fading away into a brooding, arctic coda, the only track on the album not to end on a more hopeful note than where it began.

But then Stevens follows it up with There’s A World, a stunning, stripped-down rework of a Neil Young deep cut.

Unlike the rest of the album, this closing track sticks to its gently finger-plucked guitar, whispered vocals and disembodied choir arrangement throughout, intricate and full of a sense of everyday wonder. “There’s a world you’re livin’ in/ No one else has your part,” Stevens croons soothingly.

Having broken our hearts, he now offers us the salve that keeps him going—faith and a love for our shared humanity. “Could be good things/ In the air for me and you,” he sings, his voice a small, life-saving taper of light in the all-encompassing darkness.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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