In his new album, Javelin, Sufjan Stevens gives the listener no time to settle into sadness.
The album’s opener, “Goodbye Evergreen,” establishes the melancholic tone that looms over the rest of the album. An elegy for the singer’s late partner, it begins with the lyrics, “Goodbye Evergreen / You know I love you / But everything heaven-sent / must burn out in the end.” Describing his now-deceased partner, Stevens writes in the album’s dedication note: “He was an absolute gem of a person, full of life, love, laughter, curiosity, integrity, and joy.” Although Stevens had never spoken publicly about his sexuality before this dedication, fans have long debated whether his music alludes to queerness. With the lyrics blending both queerness and Christianity, his music has even inspired the Facebook page entitled: “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about God?” As per his latest album, it’s about both.
Stevens again merges religion and relationships on the album’s sixth track, “My Red Little Fox.” In the third verse, Stevens sings, “Let’s not be for want / Wanting is a sin / …. Let’s drink ‘till it’s Pentecost.” One might hear these lines as condemning homosexual desire, but it is also possible to see “want” as a synonym for “lack.” In this context, these lines suggest that living without his lover would be sinful. Similarly, “Let’s drink ‘till it’s Pentecost” could be a metaphor for how Stevens and his partner are waiting for acceptance, just as the Apostles waited for Pentecost.
Another standout track on the album, “Shit Talk,” alludes to Stevens’ recently-revealed diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Now living with a rare autoimmune disorder that has left him unable to walk, he sings, “I’ve nothing left to give / I’ve nothing but atrophy.” The song beautifully compares the death of Stevens’ relationship to the deterioration of a sick patient by repeating the phrase “I don’t wanna fight at all.”
Among the album’s strongest tracks is “Javelin (To Have And To Hold).” The ballad perfectly captures how horror and relief simultaneously consume a person after they have narrowly avoided disaster. Reflecting on a time when he almost fatally injured his partner, Stevens sings, “It’s a terrible thought to have and to hold.” In this song, Stevens seems to indicate that he blames himself for his partner’s eventual death.
This album is plainly devastating. Most of the songs tackle heavy themes without giving the listener much recovery time. That being said, the sonic landscape contains a great deal of variation, allowing the listener to disengage from the lyrics as needed. Even some of the saddest songs contain rhythmic climaxes that keep the album from feeling overwhelmingly somber. Still, Javelin is certainly not for casual listening. To truly appreciate the beauty of this project, I recommend sitting down with the lyrics, a notebook, and a box of tissues.