Best of 2023: Sufjan Stevens’s Javelin Blew Ratboys Away

Julia Steiner on her favorite record of the year.

My favorite record of the year is definitely the new Sufjan record, Javelin

I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens for a really long time. Out of the artists that I still regularly listen to, he might be my longest, most enduring relationship as a listener. When I was maybe 13 or 14, I got pretty obsessed with his Michigan album and then did the deep dive from there. It really cemented my admiration for him, and just my overall fascination, when his record Age of Adz came out in 2010. It’s this electronic, frenetic, chaotic space opera album, and it’s still my favorite record of all time. 

I love Sufjan’s artistic versatility and how you never really know what side of him you’re going to get with any of his albums. He tends to operate in extremes — whether it’s the pristine vulnerability and sadness of some of his more toned down albums, like Carrie & Lowell or Seven Swans, or whether it’s the wild, maximalist, noisy explorations of albums like Age of Adz or even the poppier Illinois. And then, above it all, there’s a signature sense of deep wonder that unites all of his output. So anytime Sufjan announces a new record, I can’t wait to hear it, but this new album absolutely blew my mind in a new way because it’s kind of the perfect mix of those extremes. It feels like the most balanced, well-rounded, comprehensive sonic expression of who Sufjan is and what he cares about — to me, at least, as a fan. It made me honestly quite emotional upon first listen, even without knowing the overarching context of the songs before I dove in. I feel like even just from a musical standpoint, it’s such a rich gift to the listener and a real, pure artistic expression. 

As far as I know and have read, Sufjan has never been very open speaking about his personal life outside of his music. He’d definitely never spoken about his romantic life publicly before now. But in his music, if you read between the lines — or even just read the lines — he’s long been quite open and vulnerable with sharing so much of himself. That’s something I find extremely brave, and it’s something that I kind of model my own writing after. But having this additional context to the record that he shared — with discussing the death of his partner and publicly coming out in the process — that absolutely blew me away and filled me with gratitude. It was such a generous gesture, to open up and provide more context to his art and to him as a person, and I think it added a lot of weight to the music in a beautiful, triumphant way. 

I remember that Javelin came out right at the end of one of our tours, and it just consumed me for the entire day. It was a beautiful thing to experience on the road, driving down I-94 in rainy rural Wisconsin. I think track one, “Goodbye Evergreen,” is my favorite song off the record. It perfectly sets the stage of love and grief for the entire album. The way the song changes stylistically throughout… Sufjan does that, though — even within individual songs, he will often explore all these different atmospheres. Not just over the course of an album or throughout his entire discography, but within one song he can go to so many different places. I love that. And obviously the lyrics are directly addressing his partner’s illness and impending absence. That’s something that I really find beautiful, the act of preparing for grief, or of anticipating loss. I’ve written songs like that myself, and I find it a very helpful exercise. Maybe it’s something that anxious people do to have some semblance of control… or maybe I’m just projecting.  

So much has been said about this record by music writers and fans, and I’m happy that it’s getting so much love, because it really does feel like a career-defining album for Sufjan — which is no small feat, because he’s made so much music and at such a high level for so long. I feel grateful when any artist is willing to lay their hearts bare for the world, and Sufjan’s willingness in that respect knows no bounds. It’s inspiring. And I will say, too, that the physical packaging for this album is just fucking wild. Anyone who’s slightly interested in this music or curious about what Sufjan’s got going on beyond the scope of the songs themselves should pick up an LP. All of his LPs have a lot of special details and extra art included, and this one’s no different, with a gorgeous book of collages and mixed media art and essays on the mysteries of love and loss. It’s all very intentional and existential and very Sufjan. So if you’re a fan or even just curious with what all the fuss is about, it’s definitely worth checking out.

As told to Annie Fell. 

10 years ago this April, Chicago’s Ratboys put out their first collection of songs. The RATBOY EP, consisting of five indie-folk dorm room recordings, was free to download on Bandcamp and humbly passed around to friends on social media. 

Cut to 2021, and Ratboys would normally be celebrating their 10-year anniversary on the road, playing a mix of songs from their very first release to their most recent, last year’s critically-acclaimed Printer’s Devil. Instead, just two weeks after the album’s February 2020 release and mere days before heading out on their first headline tour, the COVID-19 pandemic forced all touring to a halt. Despite not being able to play in-person shows for the past year, Ratboys has managed to stay busy by performing their music online via their own Virtual Tour series and by finding a different way to celebrate their first decade of being a band.