An early successful album can cast shade over an entire career. Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 release, ‘Illinois’, was one of the first great albums of the 21st Century. Following on from 2003’s ‘Greetings From Michigan The Great Lake State’, it was the second full length release of what he claimed would be a set of song cycles about the 50 states and managed to combine unlikely stories about the state and its history with emotion, epic sweeping sound with intimacy. Subsequently backtracking and stating his claim had been made in jest, Stevens has gone on to release an array of stylistically different albums, including 2010’s expansive electronic influenced ‘The Age of Adz’ and 2015’s brittle, acoustic exploration of love and death, ‘Carrie & Lowell’. While his new album, ‘Javelin’, was recorded at home with Stevens playing almost all the instruments, it has the air of a studio epic with melodies that unfurl with a splendour comparable to ‘Illinois’ while incorporating some of the electronic elements of ‘The Age of Adz’, all within a concise ten song, 42-minute framework.

The album’s opening song title and phrasing of its first line, ‘Goodbye, Evergreen’, references Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, setting off accompanied by soft piano, before blossoming into an orchestral sweep which almost swallow the electronics. With elements of chamber and choral pop together with intense if sometimes over florid lyrics (“I grow like a cancer/ I’m pressed out in the rain / Deliver me from the poisoned pain”) so much ground is covered in its 3 minutes. While it would be unfair to describe it as setting the formula for ‘Javelin’ as each song branches in many directions, the pattern of quiet starts preceding the introduction of many elements is followed.  ‘A Running Start’ commences with plucked banjo before developing a Christmasy feel with bells and orchestration of exquisite beauty. The backing vocals (which at various points come from Adrienne Maree Brown, Nedelle Torrisi, Pauline Delassus, Megan Lui and Hannah Cohen, often in unison) are a feature of the album serving to elevate Stevens’s hushed, unassertive delivery.

‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’ sees Stevens going through the mill “Tie me to a tiny wooden raft /Burn my body, point me to the undertow / Push me off into the void at last / Watch me drift and watch me struggle” as he seeks someone to “pledge allegiance to my burning heart”. It could be emotionally overwhelming but for the gorgeous layers and sounds that accompany Stevens’ typically soft voice.

Religion is a theme that has surfaced regularly throughout Stevens’ career and ‘Javelin’ is no exception. On ‘Everything That Rises’, he quietly begs “Jesus lift me up to a higher plane / Can you come around before I go insane? / Cast me not in hell/ Where the demons rage” while surrounded by gentle guitar, restrained orchestration, flickering electronics and his backing choir. Such is the understated delivery of ‘Genuflecting Ghost’ that some huge sentiments (“Now we dance in our catastrophe… Rest assured, empires will fall”) almost slip past, similar to how the electronics go unnoticed on first listen such is the impact of the delicacy, voices and overall majesty of the music.

‘My Little Red Fox’ has elements of folk ballad, nursery rhyme and hymn, flutes and harpsicord, bells and voices like a winter choir as he pleads, “Kiss me with the fire of the gods”. ‘So You Are Tired’ is luscious in spite of its sadness as fourteen years of a relationship ends while the narrator is still in love and “returns to death”. ‘Javelin (To Have and To Hold)’ is a short, stripped-back but bloody interlude centring on the hurling of a javelin at someone who throws themselves over the rocks.

In contrast, ‘Shit Talk’ is an eight-and-a-half-minute epic featuring contributions from Bryce Dessner of The National on electric and acoustic guitar with prayer-like language (“deliver me from everything”) and a distressing conclusion (“Our romantic second chance is dead/ I buried it with the hatchet… I will always love you / But I cannot look at you”). The album closes with a restrained cover of Neil Young’s ‘There’s A World’ (both vocalists with decidedly non-macho styles) which Stevens makes his own.

While ‘Javelin’ may not surpass ‘Illinois’ as Stevens’ greatest work, it is an album of immense beauty that is his finest for many years.

Sufjan Stevens: Javelin – Out 6th October 2023 (Asthmatic Kitty)

Stevens – “A Running Start” (Official Lyric Video) – YouTube

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.