By: Jordan Sarver-Bontrager
Sufjan Stevens has always been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time. I love the way he uses imagery in his songs and the way he tells stories through his songs.
My two personal favorite records by Sufjan are as follows. One is his 2005 album “Illinois” with tracks like the iconic “Chicago” and the gut-wrenching “Casimir Pulaski Day”. The next one is my personal favorite Sufjan album, 2015’s “Carrie and Lowell”, an album in which Sufjan processes the loss of his mother with whom he had a complicated relationship. It has songs like the opener “Death with Dignity” and the devastating “The Only Thing”.
Now it’s 2023, and Sufjan has released “Javelin”, a record similar to “Carrie and Lowell” about the death of his partner, Evans Richardson IV, that occurred in April 2023. This announcement of his partner’s death was the first time Sufjan had ever been public about his relationship. Sufjan was also diagnosed with the rare autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome. This album is the expression of how he has been dealing with these tragic events in his life.
On this record, Sufjan blends folk with electronic to create interesting soundscapes like he does on the opening track, “Goodbye Evergreen”, an emotionally impactful track that uses spiritual lyrics that express the grief he feels for the loss of his partner. Sufjan has always used his Christian faith in his lyrics. As somebody who personally isn’t religious, I do find this to be beautiful. His lyrics have always had religious themes, but he sings about his faith respectfully and acknowledges the complexities of it. This is especially true on “Carrie and Lowell”, and it is sang about here on this record.
The instrumentals on this record are absolutely gorgeous. The intimacy, the plucked strings, the group vocals, the electronic beats, Sufjan’s quiet and timid voice… All of it comes across as very genuine.
The album’s lead single, “A Running Start”, is an achy track about two lovers seeking escape and some sort of solace. The gently sung and plucked guitars give off the impression that Sufjan is hurting, which, throughout the record, he obviously is.
The devastating track “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” is a beautiful track about wanting to find true love, and it’ll be a deeply resonating track for anyone who listens to it.
“Everything That Rises” sees Sufjan putting faith into this record, hoping that his faith can save him from darkness.
My favorite song on the album is the penultimate track, the gut-wrenching and tear-jerking “Shit Talk”, which builds on the themes of the title track that came before it: themes of a relationship being on the rocks. Upon first listen to this song, it made me cry. Sufjan accepts that he will always love his partner, declaring that he “doesn’t want to fight at all” and that “I will always love you, but I can’t live with you.” The instrumental to this track is one of the most gorgeous instrumentals I’ve ever heard. The guitars, the strings, all of it is just gorgeous. Sufjan put his entire heart into the song. It’s one of his top five greatest songs.
The album closes with a cover of Neil Young’s “There’s a World”, a song that really ties up the themes of loss, grief, hope and faith that are present on this record.
There were other tracks I really enjoyed. Songs like “My Red Little Fox” and “So You Are Tired” come to mind.
This album is beautiful, and I don’t see any reason against making this my album of the year. I know it’s early for that, but I just don’t think I’ll hear any record that bests this one.
Something that Sufjan does in his songwriting that I really appreciate is how he talks about mental health. Sufjan is a very honest songwriter, and he’s not afraid to admit when he’s struggling. That is something that men should be able to talk about. There is a stigma in our society around men and mental health. Us men should not be bottling everything up, and it’s okay to be open, it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to cry. It’s rough out here, and it’s not gonna get any easier. That is why I like songwriters like Sufjan Stevens. His songs emotionally resonate with me, and we need more songwriters like him.
Favorite track: “Shit Talk” and every single other track
Least favorite track: None of ‘em