“Rest assured, empires will fall,” Sufjan Stevens sings in “Genuflecting Ghost”. The line comes amid thoughts of sacred love, human risk, and haunted insecurity. He could be talking like a revelator about a kingdom; he could be talking about a marriage. He could be finding his way to something above it all. Given the scope of Javelin, even with its compactness, it’s likely Stevens suggests all three as he chases something. All this talk of ghosts and empires comes as part of a series of questions and reflections that, for all their grandness, always remain grounded in imminence. For this profound wrestling, Stevens draws on his broad musical experience and stylistic flexibility, giving his album a sort of musical wisdom and making it one of his best.
Much of Javelin plays like a break-up album, with Stevens looking at loss and heartbreak, but as finer details come into focus, the album takes in a broader expanse. There is breaking up here, as well as the breaking of illusions, but the central drive of the record isn’t so much coping with loss as it is insisting on something transcendent in the mess. Stevens begins Javelin with a goodbye, acknowledging that “everything heaven-sent / Must burn out in the end.” He starts with a dismal belief, fortified by continual destruction, yet persistently pursues much more.
“Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” has a title that, coming from a different artist, might suggest something cloying or whining. Sufjan Stevens pulls off the title through immediate directness and surprising turns, all delivered through Javelin‘s best melody. Stevens goes through witch hunts and “summer sins” in his quest, adding a religious element to the drama (romantic and spiritual love remain intertwined throughout Javelin). He’s not looking for a partner in the midst of adolescent angst; he wants to push on to something higher, love “without grievance”, that comes through the pain of it all and not as personal fulfillment or escapism.
For all the elevation of the album, danger never wanders far. The title track plays with the phrase “to have and to hold”, suggesting marital vows while discussing horrible ideas that run through someone’s head as a relationship unravels. “Shit Talk” uses eight minutes to deal with the fallout of it all, resolved not in anger or resentment (all that came earlier) but in kindness. “In the future, there will be a terrible cost”, Stevens sings as a “romantic second chance” dies. But for now, he can speak softly and move on, knowing he will always love someone he can’t live with. It’s better to part than to attack, and the chorus of voices turns “I don’t want to fight at all” into a mantra. The rising music and uniting vocals present the idea as one not of resignation but as a choice, a loving act that, for better or worse (to continue with the failing vows), can bring peace.
Sufjan Stevens’ musical journeying over the past two decades comes to its fullness as he grapples with these concepts. Every piece fits perfectly, but more than that, he knows what sort of puzzle to construct. There’s a softness to everything; you can draw lines to Seven Swans. Stevens understands how to maximize his pop to effect, but he never overplays. Songs get big, but the music doesn’t fill to compression.
About a minute into “Goodbye Evergreen”, everything turns sour, the music more dissonant than abrasive, an alarm that peace will require effort, and the gentle opening only reveals one facet of the experiences presented here. Typical touches remain – the delicate vocals and precise enunciation of the phrase “everything that rises”, for example – but they apply perfectly to each moment. Fans will feel as at home as Stevens is in his milieu, but none of Javelin feels like a retread. It works like a good melody; it makes perfect sense, even if you didn’t quite see it coming.
At an artistic peak, Sufjan Stevens chooses to end his record with a cover. Javelin never quite collects as a concept record (though it wouldn’t take much to draw out the throughlines), so there’s no reason he shouldn’t end it this way, but it’s a surprise nonetheless when he sings Neil Young‘s “There’s a World”. The song felt overblown on Harvest, but Stevens brings it into a simple folk setting for his record, and it gets new resonance in this context. Stevens’ singer, through the album, has battled for something good, searching horizontally and vertically for love, giving up without breaking, and learning what has to burn. Now, he stops and imagines a world where everyone has their place, like “a righteous dream”. Given the procession leading to the song on Javelin, it feels like hope well earned, but it also sounds like a dream that, if it can’t be truly manifested, can at least always be about to be realized.