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Sufjan Stevens shows uncharacteristic vulnerability with new album 'Javelin'


SUFJAN STEVENS: (Singing) If I imagined myself peaceful on the fire escape...


The singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens has been making soulful, introspective music for more than 20 years without ever revealing too much about his personal life. His latest album, "Javelin," is out today, and in an Instagram post this afternoon, the artist revealed more about the music and opened a window into his life, writing - this album is dedicated to the light of my life, my beloved partner and best friend, Evans Richardson, who passed away in April. Stephen Thompson of NPR Music has followed Sufjan Stevens' career for years and has given a close listen to this album. Stephen, thanks for being here to talk with us about it.


SHAPIRO: Can you tell us more about what Sufjan Stevens said in this Instagram post?

THOMPSON: Well, the Instagram post fits a lot of information into just a few words. You know, he lost his partner, somebody he describes as his beloved partner and best friend. In the process, this is a coming out - Evans Richardson IV was a man. And the post kind of goes into paying tribute to this partner he describes as an absolute gem of a person, full of life, love, laughter, curiosity. It's just a beautiful reminiscence and a reminder to embrace the people closest to us and appreciate every moment we have with them.

SHAPIRO: And he's also been public about his struggle this year with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. Addressing these challenges publicly is a big change for a person who, until now, had always been relatively private.

THOMPSON: Yeah, and I think the announcement of the diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome, you know, that's a serious affliction of the nerves. He's had to be hospitalized extensively. He's had to relearn to walk. And, you know, he's been very open, you know, on Instagram posts sort of talking about the experience of just how debilitating that was and how much it's kind of affected, you know, the later part of this year. But that, on top of this tremendous personal loss, definitely recontextualizes the album. And, as you say, you know, this is an artist who has kept a lot of things about his life private, even as his music has remained extremely vulnerable. You know, he put out an album called "Carrie & Lowell" that goes into great emotional depth talking about his relationship with his mother. But at the same time, other parts of his life have been kept very private.

SHAPIRO: And so now, in one sentence, Sufjan Stevens came out publicly, revealed that he had a partner and revealed that the partner recently died. You have been listening to this album. Do you hear it differently in light of that context?

THOMPSON: Absolutely. And you can tell from the very first track on this record. The first song on the record is called "Goodbye Evergreen."


STEVENS: (Singing) Goodbye, evergreen. You know I love you. But everything heaven sent must burn out in the end.

THOMPSON: Even just those words - goodbye evergreen - hit differently. His partner's name was Evans. I had interpreted the song on my first few listens thinking it was about a breakup, or maybe it was a meditation on environmental collapse, you know, because of the references to nature. But when you hear it in light of this news, it suddenly takes on a much greater resonance.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Thompson hosts our Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Thanks for talking with us about the new Sufjan Stevens album, "Javelin."

THOMPSON: Thank you, Ari.


STEVENS: (Singing) I'm drowning in my self-defense. Now punish me. Think of me as what you will. I grow like a cancer. I'm pressed out... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)