Recently struggling to sleep, I turned to Convocations – Sufjan Stevens’ 2021 49-track instrumental album, written in the wake of his father’s death. I was taken aback by this subtly inventive two-and-a-half hour, five-part song cycle. It came only one record (2020’s technicolour The Ascension) after 2015’s spartan Carrie & Lowell, which ruminated on the passing of Stevens’ mother. Since then, it emerged last month that Sufjan has contracted the debilitating Guillain-Barre Syndrome for which he is undergoing rehab, currently learning to walk again.
Even though his health struggles post-date his latest creation, Javelin nonetheless builds on Carrie & Lowell’s sonic trajectory and mood, while also harking back lyrically and musically to early releases like fans’ favourite Seven Swans (2004). Unlike the runaway bleeps and booms of The Age Of Adz (2010) and the 80-minute The Ascension, Stevens, who made Javelin largely alone at home, is honed into 42 minutes and ten tracks which, literally, don’t waste a beat. The whole album is meticulously pieced; considered, candidly opening veins, occasionally joyful – a reflective, often restrained, emotional outpouring.
Opener ‘Goodbye Evergreen’ almost throws us off the scent, with its plaintive piano intro gate-crashed by pummelled rhythms resembling a typical Sufjan Santa Elf workshop production line. Wonky pipes barge in, while Stevens’ self-loathing end-of-relationship musings (“I grow like a cancer”) disturb.
Contrast this to second track ‘A Running Start’, where the singer reminisces on the ecstatic birth of a past romance with “my lovely pantomime” – a striking image reflected in a mystical soundscape of skipping guitar, flute and the playful harmonies of Hannah Cohen, adrienne maree brown, Pauline Delassus, Megan Lui, and Nedell Torris – Sufjan’s main Javelin collaborators. We’re then jolted back to the lonesome present with Stevens’ lamenting “Will anybody ever really love me?” on the devastating ballad of the same name. But even this yearning is gilded with a sweet, swelling outro – belying, almost celebrating, the protagonist’s pain via a burst of electro pulses.
On ‘Everything That Rises’, Stevens, as he has frequently in the past, looks to divine assistance: “Jesus, lift me up to a higher place/Can you come around before I go insane”. Sufjan sits in the confessional while his female gospel choir swirl in and out and futuristic Tom Waits-like tools clang and bleep.
There isn’t a wasted moment on Javelin, with even the eight-minute ‘Shit Talk’ (coming after the sparser blood and death themed title track), featuring The National’s Bryce Dessner on guitar, boundarying itself. A remarkable song, Sufjan gently implores: “Hold me closely, hold me tightly lest I fall”, until his celestial chorus take up the same refrain, sleigh bells jingle and back-masked horns and keyboard washes repeating to fade. This is Stevens, imploring “I don’t want to fight anymore”, at his battle-weary, beautiful best. It ensures the album’s coda, a relatively straight cover of Neil Young’s ‘There’s A World’ makes perfect sense with its final lines: “All God’s children in the wind/Take it in and blow (real) hard.”
Sufjan, while still an acquired taste for many, remains a multi-tasking man out of time – whether producing ballet scores, cosmic incidental music, or more traditional songwriter records. Javelin is Stevens at his most singular – somehow melding the finest elements of his acoustic and experimental work to date. It’s a laser-focused labour of love; sinking deeper and deeper with each listen.