Sufjan Stevens, the renowned folk legend, has returned to his roots with "Javelin," his first solo folk effort since 2015's critically acclaimed "Carrie and Lowell." The album was released this October, following a period of significant personal struggle for Stevens, his partner, whom he dedicated the album to, passed away earlier in the year. After that, he nearly died of Guillain–Barré syndrome, which has rendered him temporarily unable to walk for possibly a year. Despite all his struggles, he has still released one of the year's best-received albums.
"Javelin" stands tall amongst the best of Stevens' work as he continues to write poetic lyrics and match them to beautiful music. While the album is primarily a folk album, Stevens is known for incorporating several different genres, such as electronic music, chamber music, and rock, into his work. He does it to perfection; nothing ever seems out of place, and it adds to the emotional intensity of the album. The album is self-produced and made entirely in Stevens' own home, as intimate as possible.
A perfect example is on the opening track, "Goodbye Evergreen," where he gives a heartfelt tribute to his former partner to a simple piano instrumental before the aggressive yet effortless transition into a cathartic onslaught of orchestral instruments and synthesizers, with the repetition of "Goodbye Evergreen, you know I love you." This is one of the album's highlights, surmising all that makes Stevens a great artist. The variety felt within one track is often impossible to find within full albums. The standout lyric is "Everything heaven-sent, must burn out in the end," resigning to loss but understanding its inevitability and emphasizing the importance of making whatever moments you have count.
The next track, “A Running Start,” is far more positive, with Stevens’ evocative lyrics expressing a time of greater simplicity and joy in his relationship behind a simpler guitar instrumental, which brings a greater focus on the words he’s writing, before the song ends with a grander and more positive instrumental than in the album’s opener.
He moves on to ask "Will Anybody Ever Love Me?" on track 3, the second single off the album. He makes excellent use of a backing choir after the first chorus, supplementing but never dominating the vocals on the track, with an instrumental that has several different stages, moving from simplicity to extravagance, as he simply asks for someone to "Pledge allegiance to his burning heart," showing the desperation with which he seeks a real love. Stevens is at his authentic best, unafraid to ask the questions that linger in his mind and explain how they make him feel, with extreme and often brutal imagery.
Stevens continues with his themes of desperation on the fourth track, "Everything That Rises." He invokes the Christian themes which have defined a large part of his work. He asks that "Jesus lift [him] up to a higher plane" and that he "cast [him] not in hell." The track title comes from the chorus, "Everything that rises must converge," based on a book by Flannery O'Connor (not the first song he's named after her work), inspired by the French Jesuit de Chardin. The chorus is a track highlight, exceptionally catchy while containing the central element of the song's lyrics. The phrase asks that people act with honesty and love because one day, every soul who goes to Heaven will meet each other, which fits in well with Stevens' desire to go somewhere higher than this Earth before he feels it is too late.
On "Genuflecting Ghost," Stevens attempts to find some form of peace, both in God and in his personal relationships. He seems to find more assurance in himself as he repeatedly praises somebody's name, whether God, his former partner, or multiple things. He almost desires to lift himself away from what has been troubling him rather than waiting to be lifted, perhaps understanding that he has been granted that power himself as he "dances in catastrophe." He gives a softer vocal performance, possibly displaying the sense of peace he seeks in this track. That heavily contrasts with the instrumental, which is probably the best example of him combining several different aspects of his artistry with callbacks to the electronic nature of his 2010 record "The Age of Adz."
"My Red Little Fox" is another of the album's highlights, primarily a performance between Stevens and his piano before the choir joins excellently during the chorus. One of the most peaceful songs on the album, he carries on the softer vocals from the previous track and matches it with the gentle instrumentals and backing vocals. He continues with the Christian references, using the holiday of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit granted the apostles the ability to speak in foreign languages to spread the Gospel, as a reference for his relationship, where he felt he could talk genuinely and without hesitation. The music and the lyrics combine for a heavenly song, a definite 10/10.
The lead single, "So You Are Tired," reflects on the failure of a long-term relationship. Stevens ponders what he has done to bring his relationship to this point and suggests that even if his partner is tired, he should just rest rather than end the relationship, because Stevens is still in love with him. He questions every aspect of the relationship, wondering if he has experienced something entirely different from his partner. Stevens goes from asking why he got "tired of us" to "tired of me," suggesting that he is taking individual responsibility for the fractured relationship rather than putting it down to the group. Again, Stevens finds the perfect combination of choir vocals and isolated vocals behind a simple acoustic guitar for the most part, culminating in an excellent outro to the track. It's another of the album's highlights, an exhibition of transferring raw emotion to music.
The title track, "Javelin(To Have And To Hold)," comes in at just under two minutes. It combines the imagery of accidentally killing somebody with a javelin and the marriage vows "To have and to hold." It could reflect the aforementioned relationship, with Stevens finally accepting that a committed relationship with this person may have only led them to harm. It is one of the more simplistic tracks here but creates a mellow atmosphere.
The best song on this album is "Sh*t Talk," in which Stevens, himself sounding tired, dedicates himself to rise above fighting. The track is a worthwhile eight minutes long and runs through different stages. In the first stage, he sings about how he will always love the person he speaks to, but he can not live with or look at them. It is highly personal; the layering vocals are his own rather than from a larger choir. It ends with a major instrumental, leading into the next stage, where he and his ensemble ask to be held so that he doesn't fall.
It then calls back the first stage, combining the two, before moving into the third stage, where he repeats that he does not want to fight at all, with a building instrumental. He brings the first stage back into it again, with the two repetitive phrases intertwining in an awe-striking fashion. After taking you on a massive rollercoaster for a full six minutes, the song settles down into string instruments, bringing you back to Earth. It is impossible to do this song justice with words. It is an absolute must-listen. Easily one of the best songs he has ever written. I could write an entire Campus issue only about this song, but I will ask you to listen to it instead. I was hesitant about an eight-minute track with that title, as a huge fan of Stevens, but it was perfect. This is the album's definitive highlight.
The closer is a Neil Young cover, "There's a World." After racing through several emotions throughout the album, it returns to beautiful optimism to close it. The track features everything you'd want in a Sufjan Stevens song: classic guitar, Stevens' high vocals, and gorgeous lyrics. As Neil Young wrote, and Sufjan repeats, "There's a world you're living in, No one else has your part."
Stevens has released one of his best works in Javelin. With evocative and emotional lyrics, his recognizable voice, masterful instrumentals, and brilliant genre-blending, this is a genuine contender for 2023’s best album. It gets a deserved 10/10.
Best tracks: Sh*t Talk, Goodbye Evergreen, My Red Little Fox, So You Are Tired
Worst tracks: N/A
Try it if you enjoy: Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, Beach House