“I’m frightened by the end / I’m drowning in my self-defense / Now punish me,” intones Sufjan Stevens in “Goodbye Evergreen”, the vivid and vast opening song of Javelin, the tenth studio album from the introspective Michigan songwriter. It’s one of several lines in the song which weighs heavier on the ear in light of Stevens’ recent diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome in September, a condition which has since required him to undergo physical rehabilitation to re-learn to walk. This news arrived mere weeks ahead of Javelin’s release, long after the acclaimed lyricist had penned his latest body of work. “You know I love you,” angelically chimes from a choir atop stirring synth-like flute tones in the closing moments. With the context of the album as a whole, this declaration is as much for himself as it is for the other souls that inspire him to be such a spirited songwriter.
Prior to Stevens’ recent statement about his health struggles, in my initial listens of his latest material, I felt, for the first time, that his typically weightless cadence revealed signs of aging. This is natural, of course, over an almost twenty-five-year-long career. And yet, while his maturity is manifesting in his cadence, – and with it an air of embittered hopelessness or regret– a boyish twinkle in his lyrics still catches your attention. Here, you’ll encounter an endearing naivety such as “I know the time has come to ask you for a kiss,” against a Disney-like cacophony of whimsical guitar playing, bright keys and woodwind motifs swirl at a dizzying pace on “A Running Start” and then be brought back to a suffocating scenario as quickly as he delivers “I will always love you but I cannot live with you.” Lyrically, Stevens delivers a potent combination of kitchen-sink dramas and deeply reflective and anxious self-examinations.
Sonically, Javelin melds the beautifully fragile textures of his beloved Carrie & Lowell with the bombast of his more expansive and ambitious electronically-focused production of The Ascension. Written and recorded in his home studio, the scope of this work is both immensely impressive but not without its moments of indulgence. The heavy-handed decoration of the arrangements, particularly in the first half of the LP, often work as the colors and textures Stevens weaves throughout are effectively captivating in drawing your ear towards different parts of the broad compositions, such as the brass-led outro on “A Running Start”, the subtle surge of choral harmonies and chiming percussive motifs in the culminating moments on the otherwise subdued “Genuflecting Ghost” and the quiet pulsing of piano which closes out the emotive “Javelin (To Have And To Hold)”. The one instance where it feels as though Stevens overstays his welcome is in the drawn-out second half of “Shit Talk”, which at 8 minutes makes more of an impact at half the length. Perhaps had this song served as the closing track to the record, then the extended synth outro would have felt more justified or elusive as an end point. However, Stevens chooses to leave listeners with a spritely and luminous cover of Neil Young’s “There’s A World”, which has a childlike optimism about the world around.
Across Javelin, Stevens typically designates the opening sections of songs to sparser instrumentation and sedate vocal performances, allowing himself time to conscientiously fill up any negative spaces within the arrangements. “Everything That Rises” is one of the few moments where he maintains a steady tempo and appears to happily exist within a more confined space. One, however, that’s still adorned with plenty of textural embellishments to keep your ear entertained.
Javelin offers something for all levels of Sufjan Stevens fans; for those that got caught up in his cinematic compositions, his intimate lyricism and those who enjoyed the more experimental and ambitious arrangements which arrived later on in his discography. It’s an excellent distillation of his idiosyncrasies which he has deftly developed throughout his career.
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