Sufjan Stevens’ relationship to the LGBTQ community has always been somewhat uneasy. Although he’s avoided directly addressing his sexuality (and he has every right not to), fans have long noticed a subtext of queer love and desire in his music — most recently with his songs for the movie Call Me By Your Name — but one that could just as easily be ready as a profound, complicated love of God and Stevens’ own grappling with his Christian faith.
That doesn’t mean Stevens’ measured gestures toward the queer community are half-hearted, or unappreciated. This past week, Stevens released a four-track EP for Pride Month, with two new songs, “Love Yourself” and “With My Whole Heart,” along with a reprise version of “Love Yourself” and a demo of the song from 1996. According to Stevens himself, the two full compositions were a sincere attempt to “write an upbeat and sincere love song without conflict, anxiety or self-deprecation.”
The fact that he even needs to make that distinction says volumes about the mood of his past work, but for the most part, he succeeds. “With My Whole Heart” is a sprawling declaration of emotion, beginning with an uncertain, Carrie & Lowell-esque string arrangement and ending with a full-on Age of Adz breakdown, by way of guitar solos, rolling drums and glittery synths. “Love Yourself,” while lyrically even simpler than the unabstruse “With My Whole Heart,” sounds less certain. The new studio recording is more of a slow dance than a rave, with a painted electronic landscape that soars into the clouds and lingers there for the song’s duration. The 1996 demo, done entirely on acoustic guitar, carries even more melancholy; when Stevens sings, in a tinny faraway voice, “Love myself/I am the one thing I needed,” he sounds cautiously optimistic.