Courtesy of Sufjan Stevens

September 28, 2023

XU | What it Sounds Like When Men in Their Forties Pine

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I am super excited for Sufjan Stevens’ new album Javelin, scheduled to come out on Oct. 6. The New York City-based artist has an aesthetic that fits with the lush waterfalls of upstate New York; Stevens did, in fact, relocate to the Catskills for a period of time in the middle of the pandemic. Based on an interview with Vanity Fair, the move did him a lot of good in terms of creating, living and thriving.

The first single from Javelin, “So You Are Tired” came out in August, followed by a second, “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” released two weeks ago. Stevens is not above asking openly for declarations of love (“Tell Me You Love Me,” from The Ascension), but this track is way more desperate. Instead of commanding a declaration of love, Stevens wonders if true love is really out there. Starting with some mellow guitalin — a classic Sufjan Stevens instrument — the track builds up to a chorus of string instruments and percussion, one that drums and chirps and tinkles like a dream march. 

It’s a good song, I’ll admit. It put me in my feels. Will anybody ever love me? You ask such great questions, Sufjan. As I was listening to it, though, floating downstream through the full-bodied sound, I thought: Wait, I’ve heard this kind of pining somewhere else. Isn’t this just John Mayer throughout his 2019 album Sob Rock, asking, longing, begging for someone to love him?

If anyone asks, John Mayer needs someone to love him. The singer-songwriter forgoes grammar on an especially mopey track just to ask again and again, why you no love me? No longer the crisp, young guitarist buzzing with energy and singing into a crowd of screaming girls, John Mayer really shows his age in Sob Rock. Pictured with slightly shaggy hair on the cover, he looks like a man who is tired of waiting. For love, that is, whatever that means for John Mayer.

At what point does the loneliness hit and the pining start? Both Mayer and Sufjan Stevens are well into their forties and ostensibly single. Mayer has had a more public dating history, including a stint with Katy Perry. The lovesick message isn’t as straightforward when it comes from Stevens, who has kept his life more private. For all we know, Sufjan Stevens is growing cucumbers in his small garden. If John Mayer is the macho womanizer who fails to land himself in a marriage by the end, Sufjan Stevens is the OG indie “sad boi” who smokes joints and writes poetry at night. I mean, come on, some of his album covers are made of what looks like magazine collages. But who knew he was lonely, too?

Referencing Stevens’ earlier work, which shows more tenderness towards the ebbs and flows of romance, Pitchfork concludes that “[eighteen] years later, patience has worn thin,” and unfortunately, I agree. Heartbreak is something we can only afford while we are young, and after a while it becomes too emotionally costly to stay and play the game of love. Something about outwardly expressing that frustration in a song makes it incredibly human and touching.

Our era is no stranger to the bare bones of desire and longing. Ever since Ocean Vuong acknowledged Sufjan Stevens at the end of his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I’ve been imagining what it must be like for Ocean Vuong to listen to Sufjan Stevens. Both artists articulate the brutal aesthetics of longing with a full heart and body. For what it’s worth, Stevens had his own brief stint in creative writing, attending an MFA program and even pitching a story to the New Yorker.

I have been a longtime fan of Sufjan Stevens, long enough to have moved through my own phases of discovering and rediscovering his music. I went from Carrie & Lowell and Illinois to Seven Swans and All Delighted People. From then on, I got into Michigan and Age of Adz, which are both great. More recently, I have been listening to The Ascension —- electronica that leans into pop —- as well as A Beginner’s Mind. The latest addition to this thread is two of Stevens’ more ambient albums, Aporia and Convocations. If you are listening to Convocations, you know you are knee deep in some extreme Sufjan Stevens.

Stevens stays exclusively on tumblr nowadays. Recluse has become part of his personality and part of his appeal: He hasn’t given any live performances since 2018, and his lack of public appearances has caused his fanbase to recede into almost a cult following, which is in turn supported by his reclusive mysteriousness. Knowing what an artist is actually like in person might actually destroy the fantasy. I’m not suggesting that we never get to know the artist — in fact, I am all for that — but Sufjan Stevens’ reclusiveness has permitted a separation of his music from the person he really is, which only really shows up sometimes in interviews. But hey, imagining is a kind of longing in its own right. All I know is that Sufjan Stevens is wondering if true love is really out there, and honestly, same, dude.

Skylar Xu is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Seeing Double runs alternate Thursdays.