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‘Come Around Before I Go Insane’: Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Javelin’ Is a Devotional, Contradictory Indie-Folk Gem

The beloved singer-songwriter’s tenth album is one of his best

Sufjan Stevens Javelin

Courtesy of Sufjan Stevens

Three songs into Sufjan StevensJavelin, he asks perhaps the most common of questions, plainly and pitifully: “Will anybody ever love me? For good reasons, without grievance, not for sport?” He specifies his vision of this love as fairly uncomplicated, as if it’s not too much to ask for — just the simple promise of someone who will “pledge allegiance to my heart/Pledge allegiance to my burning heart.”

Stevens’ phrasing brings to mind a poem by Cameron Awkward-Rich, “Meditations in an Emergency”:

“Like you, I was born. Like you, I was raised in the institution of dreaming. Hand on my heart. Hand on my stupid heart.”

The poem’s title is a reference to Frank O’Hara’s work of the same name, in which he declares a sentiment similar to Stevens’: “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.”

Each track on Javelin, Stevens’ 10th studio album and first since 2020’s sprawling The Ascension, begins delicately. He croons mindful ruminations over quiet acoustic arpeggios, evoking his much-beloved 2015 album Carrie and Lowell, or the more hushed moments on albums like 2005’s Illinois, which established Stevens as a major indie songwriter. Then the songs swell — or rather, burst — into larger cacophonies of sound, as if to balance each point of introspection with an aural representation of its respective, unbridled emotion. His intimate vocals are bolstered by the addition of celestial choral harmonies, and his production is immense, yet every layered instrument and rackety beat feels meticulously deliberate.

As with most of Stevens’ discography, the lyrics on Javelin are riddled with reverence, though the subject of them remains mostly ambiguous. There are plenty of declarations of the hyper-specific strain of deferential devotion he articulates best: “You know I love you/But everything heaven sent must burn out in the end,” he sings on opening track “Goodbye Evergreen.” “I was the man still in love with you when I already knew it was done,” he admits on “So You Are Tired.” “Genuflecting Ghost” finds him offering himself as a sacrifice to the whims of another, all while he continues to praise their name.

For Stevens, to love is an act of worship — it’s a commitment as hallowed as religion. His signature references to faith pop up on Javelin; he asks Jesus to “come around before I go insane” on “Everything That Rises” (recalling Flannery O’Connor, as he did on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” from his 2004 album, Seven Swans). He concedes that wanting is a sin on “My Red Little Fox,” a hymnlike track that sounds like it’d be playing off in the distance of some enchanted forest. Still, he hopes to be kissed “with the fire of gods.”

For all of its devotional moments, Javelin is also riddled with emotional contradictions. On the title track, he sings that “It’s a terrible thought to have and to hold.” But later, on the record’s apex “Shit Talk,” he begs the other to “Hold me closely/Hold me tightly lest I fall.” “Shit Talk” is an eight-and-a-half minute meditation on yearning coupled with the admittance of love’s inevitable terrors. “I will always love you/But I cannot live with you,” he sings, but each time he gets to the latter half of the statement, tinged with unease, a choir drowns out his voice as if to deny any trace of doubt. By the end of the track, the opposing repeated statements overlap over a raucous instrumental with wailing strings, and eventually nosedives into a lush, serene orchestral soundscape.

Javelin ends on a surprising moment of levity with “There’s a World,” a Neil Young cover that Sufjan reimagines over a delicate guitar-plucking pattern reminiscent of Carrie and Lowell opener “Death With Dignity.” It’s the only track that maintains its starting pace until the end: no dramatic buildup, no diversions, just the hopeful anticipation that there “could be good things in the air for me and you.”

From Rolling Stone US