The Greatest Gift (Mixtape) (Outtakes, Remixes & Demos From Carrie & Lowell)
Despite its austerity, Sufjan Stevens 2015 album Carrie & Lowell aligns more neatly with its immediate predecessorsthe synth phantasmagoria of The Age of Adz and the baroque pop odyssey of Illinoisthan it does with the singers early chamber-folk. All that he learned in crafting those two epics he applied to the hushed reassembly of his grief after his mothers death, plus a little extra, all-purpose sorrow to boot. Carrie & Lowell sounds cavernous, covered with nooks and fissures and intimate production detailsthe multi-tracking of Stevens worn, cracking voice, the barely audible sleigh bells sparkling across Should Have Known Better and the title tracks windswept coda. On the albums companion anthology The Greatest Gift, Stevens opens a window onto the process of making and living with Carrie & Lowell, from its first tentative iPhone demos to the remixes performed onstage during its accompanying tour.
Unlike 2006s The Avalanche, where Stevens culled B-sides from the 90-minute Illinois plus a few alternate versions of Chicago, The Greatest Gift focuses mostly on reframing songs from Carrie & Lowell. Only four tracks here are previously unheard, and its easy to see why they didnt make the albums cut. Wallowa Lake Monster explores the same complicated maternal relationship that haunts Carrie & Lowell through the childlike lens of an aquatic cryptid, which would have thrown an odd third element into the albums cosmology of stark realism and Christianity. While lovely, The Hidden River of My Life taps back into that interminable whimsySuppose the world was not informed by real estate or power lines, Stevens muses two minutes before declaring himself a beaverand both City of Roses and The Greatest Gift could fit right in with Stevens many hours of Christmas music.
The weary, spectral iPhone demos included here also shed some light into just how an album like Carrie & Lowell is bornin multiple, slow passes, with a lot of deliberation and labor between them. John My Beloved, sung into an iPhone mic, features lyrics that would later be tweaked: Stevens reads John for some kind of stone instead of some kind of poem, and theres a ring and a life-giving string that feel a bit like stock objects from the Sufjan Stevens prop closet. In embryo form, Carrie & Lowell lacks that memorable coda, ending abruptly after the second verse. These unvarnished sketches hint at the way the entire album may have been written: not in a single outpouring but in halting bursts stifled by each songs emotional weight.