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Few lyrics sum up Sufjan Stevens’s M.O. better than “I pledge allegiance to my burning heart,” the final line of “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” from his new album Javelin. Stevens has never balked at dissecting and being led by his heart’s desires, particularly when they point toward the divine or collaboration with others. That said, love and its mysteries feel restored to their once-supreme place on Javelin, the first record since 2015’s masterful Carrie & Lowell where Stevens has laid himself this bare.
Javelin is a return to form by any measure, and it’s also his return to the solo album format. Although 2020’s electro-ified and unexpected The Ascension was his alone, it was also another left turn in what was a years-long zig-zag: full-length collaborations with his stepfather Lowell Brams and Angelo de Augustine, a ballet score performed by pianist Timo Andres, capped off by the mid-pandemic meditation album Convocations. Was this all in reaction to the enormous success of the stereotypically-Stevens-sounding “Mystery of Love,” initially recorded for the Luca Guadagnino film Call Me By Your Name (2017) and his most popular song to date? (The streaming gulf separating that track and his most popular album cut numbers well over 100 million.) Was it simply an artist growing in new and intriguing directions, one after another?
In any case, the run-up to Javelin has been less than ideal. Stevens explained his absence from the album’s would-be promotional cycle in a blog post detailing his ongoing treatment for the rare autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome. A few days later he posted a faceless selfie in a “F*CK GUILLAIN-BARRE SYNDROME” shirt captioned with “I don’t actually agree with the sentiment” and referring to his illness as a “blessing in disguise” that has “renewed his faith in humanity.” So it’s not all bleak.
Faith, albeit not always in humanity, has long been one of the primary engines driving Stevens’s songwriting. The Outline once referred to him as “the most critically acclaimed Christian musician in the world”; The Atlantic credited him with singlehandedly subverting the schlocky middle-American stigma of quote-unquote Christian music. Unsurprisingly, it remains at the fore on Javelin. The title track obliquely references the biblical story of Saul attempting to spear David, and it’s dominated by the arresting image of a near-miss: “For if it had hit its mark/ There’d be blood in the place/ Where you stood.”
Stevens is more overt elsewhere. He beseeches Christ on “Everything That Rises”—“Jesus lift me up to a higher plane/ Can you come around before I go insane?”—and again on “Genuflecting Ghost.” Both are warm, folksy, acoustic-leaning numbers, embellished only periodically with choral swells and cascading chimes. But it’s the penultimate eight-and-a-half minute “Shit Talk” where his dreamlike chamber pop crescendos morph into encompassing soundscapes, all while he plumbs that most poignant of contradictions and a sentiment equally applicable to a benevolent creator and a great (human) love: “I will always love you/ But I cannot look at you.”