The End of Something: On Sufjan Stevens’s “Javelin”

By Justin GautreauOctober 9, 2023

The End of Something: On Sufjan Stevens’s “Javelin”
OVER THE PAST two decades, Sufjan Stevens has made a career out of thinking big. In 2003, in what turned out to be more of a promotional joke than an earnest project, the then-28-year-old set out to write an album for every state in the country. Stevens abandoned the idea after two releases, the homemade Michigan (2003) and his breakout album Illinois (2005), but his innovative ambition made a lasting impression and helped set him apart from his contemporaries.

Fortunately for all of us, he has lived up to the bold image he created for himself all those years ago. There’s a restlessness that runs throughout his sprawling discography, an intense drive to explore and redefine the endless realms of songwriting and soundscapes. Much of his genius comes out of this obsession with trying new approaches while somehow never compromising his eccentric vision. On 2017’s Planetarium, in collaboration with the National’s Bryce Dessner and other musicians, he turned his attention to the solar system, dedicating a track to each planet. More recently, following the Oscar nomination in 2018 for his song “Mystery of Love” from the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack, Stevens has explored the relationship between film and music with fellow songwriter Angelo De Augustine. Still, it is in his solo work that we find Stevens at his most vulnerable as he turns his wide lens onto himself. Whether accompanied by a quiet acoustic guitar or endless layers of synthesizers, he has demonstrated over and over again how the figure of the folk singer has survived into the 21st century.

Released last Friday, Stevens’s latest album, Javelin, marks his return to the singer-songwriter mode for the first time since 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, a deeply intimate portrait of grief and loss in the wake of his mother’s death. Recorded in Stevens’s home studio, Javelin is often shamelessly blunt, but it can be equally abstract. As a lyricist, he has the distinctive ability to deliver gut-wrenching emotion in straightforward lines, especially in those small moments where he drops his guarded hymnal language. “Hold me tightly lest I fall / No, I don’t wanna fight at all,” he repeats at the end of Javelin’s “Shit Talk.” The album’s second single—“Will Anybody Ever Love Me?”—is a perfect example of Stevens’s heart-on-sleeve approach. It is difficult to imagine anybody else pulling off such a chorus with a straight face, but somehow Stevens’s honesty and vulnerability are irresistible as ever.

Unlike Carrie & Lowell, though, the autobiographical through line of Javelin remains relatively elusive. Here, Stevens lets the music do more of the heavy lifting. The sparse lyrics gain momentum when propelled by Stevens’s melodies and powerful orchestration, much like a javelin. Take, for instance, the album’s opening track, “Goodbye Evergreen,” which begins: “Goodbye, Evergreen / You know I love you / But everything heaven sent / Must burn out in the end / I promised you.” Singing softly right up on the microphone as a gentle keyboard plays in the background, Stevens beckons listeners to come close just before the music explodes into the lush sonic world that dominates the album. The first half of the song continues to build in a minor key, set against Stevens and guest vocalists Megan Lui and Hannah Cohen singing “You know I love you,” while the second half suddenly switches to a major key with the same line taking on a much brighter melody.

This opening track helps frame the album’s larger split between despair and optimism. Some songs make Javelin sound like a breakup record, or at least the end of something (“So you are tired of us,” he sings on the album’s first single). Even the album’s title track, “Javelin (To Have and to Hold),” flips wedding-vow language into a metaphor of violence: “Searching through the snow / For the javelin I had not / Meant to throw right at you / For if it hit its mark / There’d be blood in the place / Where you stood / It’s a terrible thought / To have and hold.” At the same time, other songs feel like a yearning for new beginnings. “Can you lift me up to a higher place?” Stevens asks on “Everything That Rises.”

Perhaps with the exception of the album’s second track, “A Running Start,” which includes brief geographical descriptions of fire escapes and lakes, Javelin doesn’t offer up an easily digestible story. Instead, we get cut-ups, snippets, bits and pieces of some larger picture. Stevens even gives Neil Young the last word by ending the album with a cover of “There’s a World” from the songwriter’s 1972 album Harvest, which blends seamlessly into the rest of the songs. Such a compositional collage explains Javelin’s meticulous and manic packaging, which the liner notes stress comes entirely from Stevens himself: “All original artwork, collage, painting, photography, typography, layout and design by SUFJAN STEVENS.” Made up of 48 pages, the album’s booklet features layered images of magazine cutouts blended in with photos of Javelin’s contributors textured beneath snippets of lyrics scrawled in puff paint. There are photos of Stevens scattered throughout, which are sometimes easy to miss among the sea of other images. His face in the booklet takes on a Where’s Waldo? quality, sometimes not appearing at all on a given page. In these instances, he literally takes himself out of his work.

Stevens also becomes noticeably more loquacious in the 10 essays he includes in the booklet, the titles of which form a whole statement (“My Love” “Is” “A Weapon” “Thrown” “Onto” “The” “Oblivion” “Of” “Your” “Body”). When pieced together, this puzzle perhaps brings Javelin to its fullest meaning, but the content of each piece playfully pushes meaning even further away. Given that the album also contains 10 songs, it is tempting to understand these essays in relation to them, maybe as some kind of extension. Yet apart from “A Weapon,” where—similar to “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?”—Stevens writes, “nothing really matters, nobody loves me,” the parallels aren’t immediately obvious. In fact, they often seem deliberately absent, if not altogether fictitious. In “My Love,” Stevens recounts his first love of rhythmic sound while still in the womb, immediately followed by the second essay, which begins: “I remember in college, falling in love for the first time.” Like the lyrics of the songs, though, these autobiographical hints are always cut short. The final essay, for instance, chronicles an alien abduction: “They removed my clothes and covered my body with a marshmallowy spray foam.” If nothing else, these supplementary materials demonstrate the playful quality of Stevens’s larger aesthetic, one that embraces excess and creative bursts while also questioning the place of the artist within his own work. Either there’s a rhyme and reason to the album’s artwork or it’s all a product of random spontaneity, but we’re left with the question: what difference does it make? While Carrie & Lowell’s packaging offered an intimate glimpse into Stevens’s childhood, the Javelin packaging suggests more of a distancing on his part. The more we get, in other words, the less we know. Part of Javelin’s beauty is that its meaning can only be felt.

Still, as it turns out, Stevens’s personal life can’t be separated from Javelin. On September 20, only a few weeks before the album’s release, he announced on social media that he had been diagnosed with the rare autoimmune disorder Guillian-Barré syndrome. “Last month I woke up one morning and couldn’t walk,” he posted. “My hands, arms and legs were numb and tingling and I had no strength, no feeling, no mobility.” For this reason, he explained, “I haven’t been able to participate in the press and promotion leading up to the release of Javelin.” Though he is thankfully on track to make a full recovery, such shocking news will inevitably influence the way fans listen to the album. If nothing else, it reminds us of his unparalleled creative output and how fortunate we have been to tag along over the years.

In addition to the state of his physical health, Stevens shared on the day of Javelin’s release that he has spent the past six months mourning his late partner, Evans Richardson, to whom Stevens officially dedicates Javelin in the same post. We may never know how much this tragedy factored into the songs themselves (if at all), but Stevens’s heartfelt dedication reframes the album in more bittersweet terms. “[I]t’s always worth it to put in the hard work and care for the ones you love,” writes Stevens, “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.”

As Stevens relearns to walk and leaves the album to speak for itself, the strands of optimism in Javelin somehow feel more prevalent. In the moments of darkness, Stevens finds the opportunity for renewal. “There’s a world you’re living in / No one else has your part,” he sings in his Neil Young cover at the end of the album. There’s only one Sufjan Stevens, and his music continues to be a gift to the world.


Justin Gautreau is lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His book The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his work has also appeared in GenreAdaptation, and Pacific Coast Philology.

LARB Contributor

Justin Gautreau is lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His book The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his work has also appeared in Genre, Adaptation, and Pacific Coast Philology.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!