Sad, wallowing, a little hyperactive: on the indie album “Javelin” the US musician Stevens returns to his folk roots.
Side glances at love: Sufjan Stevens Photo: Andrea Morrison
You have to imagine Sufjan Stevens as an indie artist who has a great need to decipher what holds the human species together in the world. This almost inevitably results in emotional ups and downs, which is reflected in his erratic music: elegiac sounds follow immediately after excited jingling, which in turn is followed by cacophonous chaos.
With ten solo albums to his name, the 48-year-old presents himself as a sometimes folky, sometimes electronically inclined eclectic. The emotional oscillation has always been part of the work of this musical pinball ball, although the foundation of the Sufjan Stevens sound has become darker over the years.
Stevens now makes fun of his disposition to compulsively search for meaning. At least that’s how it seems in the comprehensive booklet that accompanies the release of his opulent new album “Javelin” and ends with the enumerating statement: “I was reborn in my entirety and in truth. I was a peanut…a pretzel. I was a fried shrimp. I was chaos personified. I was myself one more time, waiting to happen again, again and again and again…until the end.”
The personal essays in which he traces the loves he has lived through and suffered through – both the concrete and the metaphysical – can definitely be read as showing that the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is slowly losing his faith.
Sufjan Stevens: “Javelin” (Asthmatic Kitty/Cargo)
Not necessarily in terms of his Christian influence, which has cropped up again and again since he had his breakthrough 20 years ago with the album “Michigan” (2003) – most obviously he devoted himself to biblical themes on “Seven Swans” (2004).
But he has obviously apostasized with regard to the USA, for whom he used to have empathy. The waving twelve-minute single “America”, released on Independence Day 2020, says: “I have loved you / I have grieved / I am ashamed to admit / I no longer believe”. In an interview with the British Guardian Regarding the previous electronic album “The Ascension”, he described the culture of his homeland as “up in flames”.
Mixture of boy scout and hipster
He once wanted to all-american boy Stevens – somehow the man in his late forties still seems like a charming mix of hipster and boy scout – dedicates its own work to each state. “Michigan” was only followed by “Illinois” (2005), the idea turned out to be a promotional gimmick.
This time Stevens’ focus is more personal, and as an Instagram post on the occasion of the release suggested, it also represents a coming out for the artist, who otherwise consistently shields his private life: the music is dedicated to his partner Evans Richardson, who died in April. In terms of sound, he’s back in folky territory.
And even if Stevens has doubts on various levels: he remains a seeker and ultimately an optimist, as the opening song “Goodbye Evergreen” testifies to. Noisy dissonance breaks into soulful indulgence, but at the end it dissolves into gentle chatter.
Love and fingerpicking
On “Will anyone ever love me?”, a background choir emphasizes this central question, while Stevens fingerpicks on the guitar and explains how he wants to be loved: “For good reasons / Without grievance, not for sport”. His songwriting certainly takes you away, even if it sounds almost too familiar at times. From his mature worldview, something new could emerge in terms of sound. However, “Javelin”, which means “spear”, hardly sets any stitches.
After experimental collaborations, for example with his stepfather Lowell Brams, the music on the album now once again offers the classic Stevens sound: elegiac, voluptuous, a bit hyperactive. These many layers will certainly sound good, especially on stage.
But it will probably still be a while before the songs are performed at concerts. A few weeks ago, the musician announced that he had Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes paralysis. So all the best from here!