Like all Sufjan Stevens albums, Javelin opens quietly. There’s a sharp preparatory inhalation, then a few gentle piano chords and Stevens singing as softly as an internal monologue. It suggests an intimate moment, as though he’s unaware that anyone is listening. From there “Goodbye Evergreen” builds patiently, adding new elements until it spills over into a cacophony of voices and beats: the personal erupting into the communal. At times it seems like Stevens can barely control the music as it continually shapeshifts and absorbs new ideas, but that’s an illusion: he’s one of the most meticulous craftsmen to survive indie rock’s 2000s heyday, and his carefully structured arrangements – as tidy as a Wes Anderson shot – only make the emotions he evokes sound wild, sprawling, uncontainable.
Javelin is a study in contradictions: precise songs about messy situations, quiet music that speaks loudly, a beloved artist wondering “will anybody ever love me”. His compositions are so gauzy that no instrument behaves quite the way it should: the plucked guitar on “A Running Start” is so clipped that it sounds sampled and manipulated, while the thudding rhythm of “Everything That Rises” – imagine the gentlest industrial beat – feels more human than programmed. Stevens has always come across as someone trapped in his own head, but here he’s even more unmoored and overwhelmed than usual.
Technically, this is his first set of new songs since 2020’s The Ascension, a dense, diverse double album crammed with odd experiments and lengthy instrumental passages. Javelin is much closer in spirit and sound to 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, his knotty and brutally candid memoir about his mother and stepfather. As a solo artist, he takes his time, but as a collaborator, Stevens is surprisingly prolific. In the last 10 years he’s worked with a range of artists to explore a range of styles and ideas: an ambient album with stepfather Lowell Brams, an avant-garde dance piece with pianist Timo Andres, a collection of songs about films with Angelo De Augustine, an elaborate composition about the solar system with Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly, and a five-volume eulogy for his biological father. Stevens always seems to be negotiating the borders between the personal and the public, what he can say alone and what he can say in a group.
Javelin sounds like a proper Sufjan Stevens album, picking up the lyrical and sonic threads of Carrie & Lowell and 2010’s The Age Of Adz. It doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of the former, partly because it’s more directed inward. He never divulges who the “you” might be in these songs – a lover, a friend, a family member, his fanbase – and that open-ended quality makes the album seem more haunted and troubled. His continued use of school-choir harmonies might sound precious at times, especially on “A Running Start” and “Javelin (To Have And To Hold)”, but they hint at childhood innocence lost. Stevens is constantly aware of the bright-eyed child he once was and the weary adult he’s become. He does sound older on these new songs, with a bit more grain and static in his voice. His voice wavers on “Shit Talk”, hitting an unsteady vibrato on low notes before ascending into a brittle falsetto, yet he sings “shit” with a little mischief in his tone, as though cussing is still a forbidden activity.
That kind of expletive is unusual for Stevens, who is much more likely to build his compositions on a foundation of scriptural language and imagery. Most of the songs on Javelin have a hymnlike quality that’s worlds away from the hyperbolic praise folk of the likes of Mumford & Sons. With its banjo and fiddle and what sound like Uillean pipes, “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” may be his most direct statement of faith and doubt – not in God, but in himself. Is he worthy of romantic or spiritual love? Is anybody? “Wash away the summer sins I made,” he pleads. “Pledge allegiance to my burning heart.”
As a songwriter, Stevens’ spiritual ambivalence sometimes recalls Leonard Cohen, who similarly used Biblical metaphors to describe his own demons and to gauge the spiritual drift of his era. For Cohen, however, holiness suffused everything, no matter who mundane or profane. Stevens only prays that the sacred might lend meaning and significance to his turmoil. “Jesus lift me up to a higher plane,” he sings on “Everything That Rises”, then adds a desperate request: “Can you come around before I go insane?” Faith is more like a foolish hope than a dead certainty, but even that can be reassuring.
Javelin ends with a short cover of Neil Young’s “There’s A World”, a lesser-known track that’s overshadowed by the other, more famous songs on Harvest. Stripped of Jack Nitzsche’s symphonic arrangement, it offers the album’s most hopeful sentiment – or at least its least conflicted. “There’s a world you’re living in,” Stevens sings over a simple guitar theme and a disembodied choir. “No-one else has your part.” The moment is all the sweeter for its smallness, as Stevens strips away his doubts to find one essential truth that might anchor him to the world.