On May 29, in celebration of Pride Month, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens surprised fans with the release of an EP named for its composite songs: Love Yourself / With My Whole Heart.
“Love Yourself” / “Love Yourself (1996 Demo)” / “Love Yourself (Short Reprise)”
Stevens has released two versions of the first of the tracks, “Love Yourself,” before — in 2013, he posted both to SoundCloud.
In the song’s most recent iteration, Stevens replaces his traditional saccharine melancholy with whimsy and earnestness. On the surface, the track seems to be a departure from the artist’s style: a relatively upbeat melody, bubbling synth and cascading chimes paired with simple and repetitive lyrics. As the title would suggest, it is a song about self-love, its message clear and direct. In contrast, the 1996 demo, which Stevens includes on the EP, is acoustic and folklike, short and sweet. In both versions, “Love Yourself” represents a simple and easy kind of beauty.
Yet it is behind this deceptively uncomplicated facade that Stevens rears his beautiful, brilliant brain. The song is as uniquely Sufjan Stevens as the musician’s dark and unexpectedly affectionate 2005 “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
In “Love Yourself,” Stevens alternates between asking the listener to love themselves (“Love, can you love yourself?”) and imploring the listener to assess their beliefs (“Make a shelf / Put all the things on / That you believe in”). The context of the song’s release near the beginning of Pride Month reveals a meaning specific to the plight of the LGBTQ+ community. “Love Yourself” acts as a kind of external beckoning toward introspection, with Stevens begging the listener to weigh their beliefs in order to love, not criticize, themselves. In a world in which many belief systems (be they religious or social) have the propensity to breed self-hatred within members of the LGBTQ+ community, the song acts as a rallying cry — your beliefs do not have to come at the expense of self-love and acceptance.
“With My Whole Heart”
Given the message of “Love Yourself,” the second of the songs, “With My Whole Heart,” is a suitable follow-up. It’s a love song with futuristic tones and a familiar message: “I will love you with my whole heart … Say you love me with your whole heart,” Stevens sings. The song incorporates all of the best parts of ‘80s pop: ambient and existential guitar solos, a crescendo of synths and a beat machine to underscore it all.
Like “Love Yourself,” “With My Whole Heart” is lyrically simple, composed of a repetition of the same four or so lines. But, also like “Love Yourself,” the song includes subtle nuances that, within the context of its release, transcend familiar conventions. In any reading, the song appears to be a dedication of love and goodwill. Yet the inclusion of lines like “I confess the world’s a mess but I will always love you” intimate a kind of forbidden love threatened by something larger than the pair.
The allusion to queer and same-sex love is subtle, though the juxtaposition of the two songs is a huge indication. Even so, it is a message that is wrapped up in what can easily be interpreted as any standard love song. And in a sense, that appears to be the point.
Love Yourself / With My Whole Heart is an inclusive take on love and what it can, and often does, look like. Be it about one’s ability to love oneself or another or both, the EP acts as a form of normalization through open interpretation. As both songs are gender-ambiguous, inclusion becomes less of a buzzword and moving target, and more of a simple reality. With these songs, it appears that the only thing Stevens asks of listeners — be they dedicating the songs to a partner or savoring them for themself — is to love themselves, with their whole heart.
Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email protected].