Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite musicians. My parents would play the CD of Illinois through our minivan’s radio on road trips when I was young, so I have a nostalgic tie to his music. He is somewhat of an enigma, with an elusive public persona, sharing very limited information about his personal life on social media and not doing many interviews. This is especially appealing during an age of music in which it’s difficult to separate the art from the artist, given how much we’re able to know about them through the internet.
Sufjan has a very broad discography, having released 13 studio albums, three soundtracks, 13 EPs, two mixtapes and more since 1999. He has a beautiful habit of making music to cope with tragedy. In 2015, he released Carrie and Lowell, inspired by the death of his mother, and in October, he released Javelin, dedicated to his late partner, Evan Richardson, whom he lost in April. The album takes us through his grief, which reveals itself through his tired voice and intricate lyrics that wax and wane through the hopelessness and hopefulness of losing someone you love too early.
His older albums are characteristically folk, but he experiments with electropop on his project The Ascension, which he put out in 2020. Javelin brings together elements of his old and new sounds and demonstrates his evolution as an artist in a fascinating way. It preserves the dense, intricately poetic lyrics of Carrie and Lowell and the swelling structure of Illinois, but rather than building up to brass instruments, the majority of his songs end by morphing into a sound that calls back to The Ascension. Sufjan frequently layers sounds and instruments in unexpected ways. In Javelin, this layering happens with combinations of piano, guitar, flutes, chimes, synth and a chorus of voices that back his own as the gently powerful focal point.
“Goodbye Evergreen,” the opening track of the 42-minute album, starts stripped-down with just Sufjan’s strained voice and a piano. It’s a heartbreaking ballad about what it feels like to lose something that was supposed to last. It builds and morphs into electropop with clashing sounds that unsettle the listener, corroborating the message of the song.
Throughout the album, he subtly compares romantic love to religious love, with many of the songs resembling hymns. He has historically been involved with Protestant churches, and this religious influence comes through in his music in interesting ways, such as in the album’s fifth song, “Genuflecting Ghost.” It seemed purposely ambiguous whether he was speaking to God or to a lover. He draws together worship and physical intimacy when he says, “Sacred word, bind me, insult / As I praise your name” or “Give myself as a sacrifice / Genuflecting ghost, I kiss no more.” Musically and lyrically, this song and others have characteristics of Protestant hymns. The melody is simple and repetitive; it builds into a chorus of voices, mimicking worship.
The album finishes with a hopeful song called “There’s a World,” completing his grief with acceptance of something beyond death. The album is honest and bold. For better or worse, his emotion is infectious and haunting. He often builds long outros into his songs, consisting of quiet chanting voices or soft instrumentals that give space to digest the dense lyrics.
The album exists outside of a time period because of its unique sound and because Sufjan makes no references to any particular era. He sticks mostly to descriptions of feelings intimately close to himself and references that are universal, for example, about nature.
Sufjan creates unexpected pairs, musically and conceptually, with this album. Folk and electronic, hope and death, feelings that seem deeply personal and somehow universal. Even when the intricate lyrics go over your head, as they often go over mine, Sufjan is a master at creating a feeling and bringing the listener into his mind. It definitely isn’t casual listening music, but it’s a beautiful album that deserves to be heard.
Rachel Cannata is a junior in the Hotel School. She can be reached at [email protected].