In Sufjan Stevens’ lexicon of love, there is nothing brighter, or more binding, than the afterglow. The word appears twice in the 48-page booklet of original art and essays that accompanies his phenomenal new album Javelin, as richly poetic and all-encompassing as the music itself, a personal catalog of love rendered as short glimpses in the cosmic journey between pre- and rebirth. First, it is the soft and natural afterglow of lovemaking, warmed by “the sweet bliss of here and now” and dreaming of a domestic future. Then, in the end, it’s part of something else entirely. In the final essay, Sufjan describes a kind of alien invasion that brings the promise of an endlessly renewable self for the narrator, who must open his mouth for a DNA sample, cover his naked body with spray foam, and succumb to the abyss. In the euphoric vision that lays out before him, his former self reveals itself like that love, “soft and pillowy.” So it follows that the songs on Javelin invariably have the same delicate beginnings, which Stevens somehow manages to retain and transform as they ascend.
Javelin is billed as Stevens’ first album in “full singer-songwriter mode” since his 2015 masterpiece Carrie & Lowell, though it doesn’t exactly find him in the same mode. It’s his first proper solo album since 2020’s The Ascension, which married sparse melancholy with opulent synths in ways that drifted away from both the heartbreaking quietude of Carrie & Lowell and 2010’s freakier The Age of Adz. If you want to call Javelin a return to form, or a culmination of Stevens’ various approaches over the years, you could, as is often the case with a high watermark in an artist’s discography. But what is moving and even groundbreaking about the album is the way Stevens arranges these elements, not foregoing the existential questions that swaddled The Ascension but weaving them into a lush, approachable tapestry of sound – one that notably serves as a reminder of his reverence for the song-based format after several forays into downcast synth and ambient experimentation. There’s perhaps no greater evidence of this than choosing a cover of Neil Young’s ‘There’s a World’, striking and clear-cut in its hope, to do the emotional heavy lifting of closing the record.
It also, of course, manifests in the strength and precision of all the original songs on Javelin, which Stevens recorded almost entirely by himself. In their heart and directness, the singles ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’ and ‘So You Are Tired’ are some of his all-time best, addressing different stages in the aftermath of love with hushed, unguarded vulnerability that feels revelatory even for Stevens. “I was the man still in love with you/ When I already knew it was done,” he confesses on the latter, sharpening the devastation by recreating the fateful realization as present-tense dialogue. But instead of wearily resigning itself, even this song searches for a kind of resolution in the fullness of the choral harmonies provided Megan Lui, Hannah Cohen, and adrienne maree brown. They also elevate the grand declaration of opener ‘Goodbye Evergreen’ as it bursts into colour, mirroring the abundance of faces in the accompanying artwork. And they do the same on the following track, the lovely ‘A Running Start’. “Can you lift me up to a higher place?” Stevens asks on ‘Everything That Rises’, the sort of question his audience might turn to him for. Time and time again, seemingly in spite of and back to himself, he answers affirmatively.
Throughout Javelin, Stevens’ ability to hold contradictions and focus his energy in the right places makes his tender optimism feel true. Each swell and crescendo isn’t there for dramatic effect but to serve parts of the story whose beauty remains ineffable, to urge and propel the singer through it. Most of all, he’s incredibly careful about where and how to end things. On ‘Javelin (To Have And To Hold)’, he’s forced to entertain a violent thought, paints the image in his mind, but doesn’t allow himself to linger on it – it’s the shortest track on the album. Then, on the eight-and-a-half-minute ‘Shit Talk’, which could have been a giant misstep on an album that favours intricate simplicity over jarring shifts, he uses the space to dissolve the hopelessness out of his plea: “No more fighting.”
At first, Stevens sounds tired, like on The Ascension‘s similarly outstretched ‘Ativan’, with its despairing sigh: “So much for the afterglow.” Then his voice, literally drowned out by a choir, becomes part of something bigger. Like so much of Javelin, it expands. “You know I love you/But everything heaven sent must burn out in the end,” he sings on ‘Goodbye Evergreen’, before asking us on ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’, with the same yearning desperation, to “celebrate the afterglow.” Oblivious as we might be to what it all means, running shorter and shorter on time, there is nothing lonely about it. For Stevens, and for all of us inclined to listen, that says a whole lot.