Sufjan Stevens’ prodigious work ethic is to be admired. Amongst all the other plaudits raining down on the American songwriter, he simply doesn’t know when to quit. That’s how he can forge something like 2020 full length ‘The Ascension’ – kind of 80-minute display of pop maximalism that went deep on love, faith, the State of America, and the impending apocalypse – while also producing a five-disc meditative set, or the Houston Ballet commission ‘Reflections’. He puts his shoulder to the wheel.
Amongst this dizzying catalogue ‘Javelin’ treads close to his core values. At times ornate at others stark, it’s the kind of heart-swelling, fulsomely ambitious barque indie folk he’s become known for. It’s remarkable, too, that no one has overtaken him; in spite of sundry, lesser, imitators there’s a certain magic to this sound and this approach that no other artist can even come remotely close to.
‘Goodbye Evergreen’ opens the album with a pensive intake of breath, before embarking on something incredibly intimate. Love, dreams, the lingering presence of death – they’re all here, the spiralling piano inflections backed by Impressionistic choral arrangements, devastating but endlessly beautiful.
All ukulele picking and scattered overdubs, ‘A Running Start’ harks back to the sound of 2015’s ‘Carrie & Lowell’ in its striking simplicity. Softly intense as only Sufjan can truly muster, it just breaks your heart, over and over; simple, short, and profound, there’s a touch of heaven to this song.
Melodically distinct, ‘Javelin’ also ably displays Sufjan Stevens’ poetic profundity. ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’ steers clear of the navel-gazing suggested by the title, the directness of his approach staring you straight in the eye. There’s a love of words here, too – would any other songwriter dare to call a song ‘Genuflecting Ghost’?
‘Everything That Rises’ has a subtle, folky feel, at home in the catalogue of inspirations such as Vashti Bunyan or the artists he himself has inspired, such as Big Thief. As hushed as his vocal is, it also underlines his technical brilliance as a singer – those rolling inflections are worthy of Ariana Grande, albeit in an incredibly different context.
The frosted piano slivers that propel ‘My Red Little Fox’ strike straight for the heart, before giving way to the Bill Evans-esque treatment on ‘So You Are Tired’. Relishing each detail of his limited palette, restriction turns ‘Javelin’ into a feast of invention – every single aspect counts, and is allowed to come to the forefront.
It’s this instinct that allows Sufjan to construct a wonderful piece of skeletal indie rock, and then call it ‘Shit Talk’. Few songwriters could bring you along for the ride. Few songwriters would even dare.
Closing with the starry-eyed wonder of ‘There’s A World’, Sufjan seems to recall former glories, while rooting us directly in the present day. Yet its always in flux – the past few weeks have seen statements on severe issues in Sufjan Stevens’ physical health, as well as the loss of “the light of my life, my beloved partner and best friend, Evans Richardson”. An artist who has never had his troubles to seek, the wonder of Sufjan’s work has always appeared to come with a cost – advancement has been matched to loss, beauty to grief. ‘Javelin’ is an outstanding record, technically brilliant, and emotionally bewitching. I’m sure I’m not alone, though, in feeling pangs of guilt amid the enjoying. I believe there’s an old Bob Dylan quote about ‘Blood On The Tracks’ – it’s a hell of a thing, to enjoy such pain.
Words: Robin Murray