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The Graham Album Review #2172

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Sufjan Stevens: Javelin

(Asthmatic Kitty Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/25/2023)

Playing music is usually a cooperative effort, with most contemporary music being created by groups of people, i.e. bands, which goes more or less without saying. But thanks to multitrack technology that goes back to the 1950s recordings of Les Paul, there are some artists who like to do everything pretty much by themselves, creating their music in a solitary way. Mike Oldfield and his Tubular Bells album, which became a soundtrack for movies, was an iconic one-man-band project back the 1970s. This week, we have the latest example of another of those layered multitrack mostly solo projects. It’s from Sufjan Stevens, and his new album, his first solo recording in three years, and his first in the singer-songwriter mode since 2015. The album is called Javelin.

Unlike some of those very-solo artists, Stevens has collaborated over the years with others making joint albums with American classical composer Niko Muhli. along with recordings with Angelo Augustine, and Timo Adres. Stevens has also done some albums based on a theme, with two releases of a planned series on each of the States in the US. One of his joint projects with Niko Muhli, was music inspired by the planets of the solar system.

But this album is much more personal. It is in part an elegy to his partner Evans Richardson, who passed away earlier this year. Also a factor in Stevens’ personal life was his contracting Guillain–Barré syndrome, a nerve affliction which affected him to the point that he was undergoing therapy to relearn how to walk. So Javelin has a somewhat more intimate ambience, despite a lot of instrumentation and arrangements in the art rock territory, along with a number of guest vocalists. Stevens frequently plays a ukulele which can give the music a smaller sound, and he often sings in a whispery voice.. The result is an interesting and multi-layered album with often confessional lyrics and arrangements that can recall the Beatles in their psychedelic era.

As mentioned, Stevens plays all the instruments, and recorded in his home studio, though he is joined by five guest vocalists who appear at various times, sometimes creating a kind of angelic chorus on some of the tracks.

Leading off is a piece called Goodbye Evergreen which is Stevens’ tribute to his late partner. <<>> But after its opening section, the piece does through a drastic change in sound. <<>>

The following track A Running Start is a highlight of the album, with its sound that goes between the intimate with the ukulele and the elaborate progressive-rock style arrangement. <<>>

With a similar musical dichotomy is the song Will Anybody Ever Love Me which seems to be another piece inspired by the loss of his companion. <<>>

Everything That Rises features the added vocalists is another sort of musical contemplation, again going from the intimate and atmospheric to the orchestrated. <<>>

Another minor masterpiece is the track My Red Little Fox, which has lyrics showing a sort of spiritual bent, and the backing vocalists becoming a kind of choir. <<>>

The title track Javelin features somewhat odd, perhaps metaphorical lyrics, in one of the more intimate-sounding arrangements on the album. <<>>

Javelin’s lengthiest and most multifaceted track has a title that we’ll paraphrase as “Talk of Excrement.” It’s basically love song in the face of adversity. <<>>

The album ends with a cover of Neil Young’s song There’s a World which Stevens sets into a kind of miniature sound, with the ukulele and the hushed vocals that provide a very different twist to the song. <<>>

Javelin the new album by Sufjan Stevens, is I think one of the best in his 28 year recording career. He beings a very personal perspective to his music, with all of the instruments played by Stevens, contrasting with the backing vocals that can at times seem like a church choir. The loss of his romantic partner, to whom he dedicated the album, and his own physical difficulties, probably contributed to this project’s often being simultaneously melodically sunny but with a melancholy sound. The compositions and arrangements are first rate and quite creative, though much of the album has a rather similar sonic texture. A bit more musical and/or sonic variety would have been nice. But as it is, Javelin is an impressive record, not least from all the layering that Steven put into the recording. He also put a lot of effort into the packaging of the physical CD with a 48-page booklet with photo collages and original art, along with essays.

Our grade for audio quality is about an A-minus. The sound is reasonably clean, and the studio overdubbing sounds quite natural and organic. It did not quite make a full grade A for the compression used, as usual, to jack up the volume, and thus dilute some of the interesting dynamic effects in the orchestrations.

Though he has collaborated with others throughout his career, Sufjan Stevens comes up with a gem with his mostly one-man band project on his new album.

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This page last updated October 30, 2023