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Amanda Bergeman November 03, 2023
Sufjan Stevens performing during the tour for his album Illinois in 2005Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, known for his Academy Award-nominated song “Mystery of Love” and his state-themed albums “Michigan” and “Illinois,” released his 10th studio album, “Javelin,” on Oct. 6. “Javelin” is a return to form for Stevens, a meditation on grief bathed in Christian imagery. It is an acknowledgment of profound loss, and also a call to hold our loved ones dear while we have them. The songwriter has never been known for his cheery subject matter—his track “Casimir Pulaski Day” is famously devastating—but “Javelin” descends into new depths of mourning.

Usually private about his personal life, Stevens dedicated the album to the “light of his life,” his “beloved partner" Evans Richardson IV, who passed away in April. Stevens also recently revealed he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome after he woke up one morning and could no longer walk. He has been in intensive physical and occupational therapy ever since, and as of Oct. 5 he was recovering at home. He has been having a terribly difficult year, but Stevens continues to excel at creating beauty out of pain.

Usually private about his personal life, Stevens dedicated the album to his “beloved partner,” who passed away in April.

“Javelin” is not despondent. Stevens clings to faith, hope and love to weather the storm. But this is not a trite story of love conquering all. “Rest assured, words come easy,” Stevens warns. He is unafraid to dive into the ugly and uncomfortable elements of his grief, humbly accepting reality. Stevens does not explicitly state who the songs on the album are about, but he takes accountability for his own failings in a relationship. So often Christian art sanitizes existence in an attempt to remain pure, forgetting that God is supposed to meet us in our brokenness. Stevens bares his soul, offering an invitation to all those grieving to enter his community and listen to his counsel—not judging any feelings that come up, but letting them flow with truth and grace.

The opening track, “Goodbye Evergreen,” is seemingly about his partner’s passing. It starts as a soft lullaby of melancholic acceptance, cooing:

Goodbye, Evergreen
You know I love you
But everything heaven sent
Must burn out in the end

It climaxes in a plea to “deliver me from the poisoned pain,” setting off a chaotic cacophony, unpleasant and unignorable. Stevens quiets the chaos in the end, softly singing: “You know I love you.” It’s heartbreaking to hear the sonic manifestation of grief in the begging and bargaining, incongruously both loud and soft.

The following tracks of the album, “A Running Start,” “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” and “My Red Little Fox” are all about seeking and finding love. “Everything That Rises” and “Genuflecting Ghost” are both overtly religious turns to God in grief. The album shifts unexpectedly with “So You Are Tired,” a world-weary breakup song. It ends with Stevens alone, surrounded by haunting vocalizations. The song does not make an innocent angel out of the dead, but acknowledges how those suffering can become shells of themselves, pushing away those who care about them.

In the titular track, “Javelin,” Stevens takes responsibility for the ending of a relationship. He blames himself for the fatal wound, “For the javelin I had not/ Meant to throw right at you.”​ The acoustic guitar squeaks as he mourns, “It’s a terrible thought/ To have and hold” looking at “Where you’d thrown yourself/ Over the rocks.” The song aches with guilt, grief and regret.

The next track, “S**t Talk” (using a word we will not include here), catalogs the communication breakdown. It is a devastating reckoning with the failing relationship. Stevens pleads:

No more fighting, I’ve nothing left to give
I’ve nothing but atrophy
Did I cross you?
Did I fail to believe
In positive thoughts?

Both Stevens and the character he’s addressing are failing to live properly and speak tenderly, picking at each other’s faults rather than loving sacrificially.

In his social media post announcing the album, Stevens writes, “I know relationships can be very difficult sometimes, but it’s always worth it to put in the hard work and care for the ones you love, especially the beautiful ones, who are few and far between. If you happen to find that kind of love, hold it close, hold it tight, savor it, tend to it, and give it everything you’ve got, especially in times of trouble.” This warning seems to be a direct response to these three tracks. All of them are reminders of how easy it is to forget to cherish each other, to slip into negative thought patterns, and to assume the worst of people we love. The contemptuous “S**t Talk” spits, “I will always love you/ But I cannot look at you.”

The album closes with a cover of the Neil Young song “There’s a World,” repurposed to an uplifting melody about the inherent value and necessity of every individual’s place in the world. The last lines assure:

No one else has your part
All God’s children in the wind
Take it in and blow real hard.

It’s a beautiful, glowing, triumphant ending, even if the positivity feels a bit strained. Stevens comforts himself as well as us, reminding us both what love is meant to be and can be. The song is Stevens’ first cover on a non-holiday studio album, suggesting that perhaps he couldn’t find the words himself or that the song itself has been a mantra and comfort to him during this trying time.

In “Javelin,” Stevens casts himself as Job, allowing his suffering to console those who follow him. He turns his pain into beauty and allows us to do the same. He invites us into the messiness of our humanity. It almost feels wrong to try to put the emotions of the album into words; it is something that can only be felt. “Javelin” is a reminder we will never love perfectly on this side of heaven. We must continue turning our face to God.

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