The Queer, Christian Yearning of Sufjan Stevens | Sojourners

The Queer, Christian Yearning of Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens performing at the Sydney Opera House during the Vivid Festival.  Joshua Windsor / Alamy

When I first heard “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?,” the second single of Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, Javelin, I immediately sent it to a fellow single friend. “Will anybody ever love me? / For good reasons / without grievance, not for sport,” Stevens sings.

It’s just the kind of dramatic, earnest yearning that works on people like my friend and me: queer, raised Christian, and unlucky in love at practically every turn. Locked out of traditional paths to partnership, especially in the communities we come from, we search for a love that can hold our whole selves — faith, queerness, and all.

Stevens has been an expert in this kind of longing since he started releasing experimental indie music in the early 2000s. He has sung about his search for both divine and human love with equal depth and specificity, often making it difficult to distinguish between the two.

On “To Be Alone With You,” an early hit from his 2004 album Seven Swans, Stevens sings of the lengths he’d go to be with someone he loves: “I’d swim across Lake Michigan / I’d sell my shoes / I’d give my body to be back again / In the rest of the room.” The listener can safely assume this is about a romantic partner until Stevens begins to talk about the other person’s devotion instead of his own. “To be alone with me,” he sings, “You went up on a tree.”

Stevens follows a similar pattern on 2015’s “John My Beloved,” shifting from one kind of love to another. “Beauty blue eyes, my order of fries,” he sings, seemingly referring to the quotidian context of a human relationship. But the song soon turns to Stevens’ relationship with God: “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me / From the fossils that fall on my head.”

It’s clear why fans created the once popular but now defunct Facebook page,“Is This Sufjan Stevens Song Gay Or Just About God?” But Stevens’ music has never been either gay or about God. It’s indivisibly gay and about God.

In a moving Tumblr post from earlier this month, Stevens announced that Javelin was dedicated to his late partner, who tragically passed away in April; the post is technically the artist’s first public confirmation that he’s queer after a career of lyrical hints. On Javelin, Stevens offers his most direct treatment of personal heartbreak to date — and he continues to draw on the inherent longing of both Christian spirituality and the queer experience, the feeling of reaching out for connection amid doubt.

Take “Genuflecting Ghost,” a brittle hymn whose object of devotion is unclear. What is clear, however, is the elemental nature of the feeling the song evokes. “Give myself as a sacrifice / Genuflecting ghost I kiss the floor,” Stevens sings over delicate acoustic guitar, letting each syllable stretch.

Or consider “Shit Talk,” the album’s penultimate track and, sonically, one of its richest. In it, Stevens addresses his beloved, using language that’s downright biblical. “In the future there will be a terrible cost / for all that we’ve left undone,” he sings. “Deliver me from everything I’ve put off.” By the end, Stevens’ confessions and grievances break into a desperate plea submerged in mournful saxophone: “Hold me closely / Hold me tightly, lest I fall.”

Here, and across the album’s synthesis of folk, electronic, and industrial sounds, Stevens is doing what he does best: He yearns.

Queer yearning is a well-documented phenomenon. It’s evident in the music of Frank Ocean and boygenius, in movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Moonlight, in the experience of anyone who has fallen in love at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or with the wrong person. When love cannot be expressed, it must be felt from across the room. When partnerships are restricted by religion, culture, or law, they must be imagined instead of lived out. It’s no wonder why queer people do so much yearning. For many of us, it’s the only option.

Yearning is central to faith, too. The biblical tradition is full of it: “As a deer longs for flowing streams / so my soul longs for you, O God. / My soul thirsts for God, / for the living God,” writes the psalmist, giving voice to a sense of God’s silence in a world marked by suffering (Psalm 42:1-2). Later Christian writers have elaborated on this longing for divine encounter, sometimes characterizing God as a lover. St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, is a prime example of this. In an allegorical canticle that describes the love between Christ and the human soul, he writes: “Come, southern wind, love’s favorite, come and stir / My garden with your breath. / Make redolent the air.” Stevens sounds similar on “My Red Little Fox”: “Kiss me like the wind / Now I sing it won’t you / Kiss me from within.”

To yearn — whether for human companionship or the presence of God — means to love across an impasse, to love in the shape of a question when you know the answer might be silence. Armed with remarkably eclectic instrumentation, cutting lyrics, and a whispery voice, Stevens has built a career out of articulating what that feels like. And on Javelin, he’s at the top of his game.

If Stevens began the album rollout by asking if anybody would ever love him, he finishes the experience by striking a different tone. The last track on the project is a transfigured cover of Neil Young’s “There’s a World” that floats along like a cosmic nursery rhyme. “There’s a world we’re livin’ in / No one else has your part,” he sings. “All God’s children in the wind / take it in and blow real hard.”

It’s not simple being queer and Christian, but Stevens’ warm parting words provide some comfort. Will anybody ever love you? I’m going to take a leap of faith and guess that somebody already does.