Sufjan Stevens’ Piercing Javelin

Joel Mayward

“Will anybody ever love me?”

Sufjan Stevens offers this desperate plea on his latest album, Javelin. It’s a cry of dereliction, a haunting elegy, and lament for a late lover. Within Stevens’ musical oeuvre of masterpieces marked by poignancy and passion, Javelin is certainly one of his strongest and most beautiful achievements. It feels like an apotheosis of his previous works—it has the religious and erotic undertones of Seven Swans, the orchestral whimsy and wonder of Illinois, the experimentality and electricity of The Age of Adz, and (especially) the grief-laden melancholy of Carrie & Lowell.

Javelin’s sorrowful tone is made all the more affecting by Stevens’ public dedication of the album to his late partner, Evans Richardson IV. “He was an absolute gem of a person, full of life, love, laughter, curiosity, integrity, and joy,” Stevens writes. He closes the dedication with these familiar Christian words: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Stevens also recently shared that he has been undergoing intensive physical therapy for Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare auto-immune disorder which left him partly immobilized and hospitalized. Listening to Javelin with the knowledge of these two significant losses—Stevens’ beloved and Stevens’ bodily health—can generate a near-overwhelming sadness as Stevens’ poetic lyrics wash over you with waves of heartache.

And yet, there is a perceptible joy within Javelin which counterbalances the sorrow. Every song begins with hushed vocals and minimal instrumentation—a fingerpicked banjo or mandolin, a lone piano or keyboard, the soft near-whisper of Stevens’ falsetto. The songs then slowly build in both complexity and volume to an ecstatic crescendo of orchestral electronic melodies and choral harmonies, a polyphony of dissonant notes which nevertheless somehow come together as a unified whole. Every song is a musical progression from the immanence of earthly affliction to the transcendence of heavenly jubilation. Indeed, both grief and gratitude are on full display here as Stevens pours out his whole heart, full of appreciation for his God, his beloved, and for the grace of life itself. It’s a paradox that may confound us: how can sorrow and joy be simultaneous emotions? How can we find enjoyment in present-day loves when we know they will inevitably end? How can Stevens’ heartbreaking loss be a further revelation of the greatest gift: the mystery of love?

Perhaps hints of an answer lie in one song on Javelin, “Everything That Rises.” The song’s title and lyrics evoke both the Flannery O’Connor short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” as well as a quote (the source for O’Connor’s story title) from French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” When Sufjan sings, “Everything that rises must converge / Everything that rises in a word,” I hear a double meaning. This is a momentary “word” as well as the eternal “Word” who became flesh and dwelt among us. Indeed, Stevens’ song contains a direct cry to this Word: “Jesus lift me up to a higher plane.” Combine Stevens’ cry with Teilhard’s sentiment and we see in Javelin a cosmic eschatological image of the reconciliation of all things in the love of God, an eternal enveloping of creation into the trinitarian embrace.

So when Stevens sings “Goodbye, Evergreen / You know I love you / But everything heaven sent / Must burn out in the end” on the album’s mournful opening song, “Goodbye Evergreen,” we may discern an underlying longing for that future eschatological reunion. Likewise, on the penultimate, epic 5/4 song, “Sh** Talk,” Stevens declares, “I will always love you” even as he also pleads, “Hold me closely / Hold me tightly, lest I fall.” The song speaks of a faithful confidence in a future hope even as the present painful circumstances naturally generate a yearning to be alleviated from heartache.

Every song is a musical progression from the immanence of earthly affliction to the transcendence of heavenly jubilation.

The mystery of divine love is that it is both here and not here; it can be experienced in part in our present age, even as we long for the future “greater love” described by both Teilhard and Stevens. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes this beautiful mystery well in his essay, “The Body’s Grace”:

“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.”

So, will anybody ever love me? God’s response to Sufjan (and to you and me) is a resounding “Yes!” You are loved and will be loved—you are wanted by God. Indeed, when all the present things have passed away, these three will remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Topics: Music