Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift

by Liam Hill

When a notification popped up on YouTube from Asthmatic Kitty, I knew it could only be good news, it always is. It got only better when the news was new content from the man himself. Although the ‘new’ content isn’t all that ‘new’, The Greatest Gift was still a release I was looking forward to.

Carrie & Lowell, unbelievably released over two years ago, was a beautifully honest, emotional and understated album, contemplating personal loss, receiving critical acclaim. Removing various eccentric instrumentations and sound clips, whilst focusing on Sufjan’s own life, there was a truth to Carrie & Lowell so rarely seen on an album. The Greatest Gift, a collection of B-sides, remixes and demos provides not only an insight into the creative journey undertaken by Sufjan but extra material and alternative insights into his tragic loss.

There are four previously unreleased tracks on The Greatest Gift, with Wallowa Lake Monster, the opening track, also being released as a single. For those that follow Sufjan, Wallowa Lake Monster is somewhat of a beautiful hybrid of styles combining both Age of Adz and Carrie & Lowell inspired sounds. Yet it remains beautifully true to Carrie & Lowell. Not shying away from confronting his personal harrowing memories, Sufjan asks, “But have you heard the story of my mother’s fate?” also ensuring The Greatest Gift is securely attached to its own mother. Detailing stories of his childhood regarding his mothers mental illness and illustrating scenes he witnessed in striking metaphor, Wallowa Lake Monster is a stunning confession of a troubled past.

The title track itself is also a previously unreleased track. At under two minutes, it’s a shame The Greatest Gift is so short. As with the Fingerpicking Demo, there is a daintiness to his grief. In true and authentic Sufjan style, the song is laden with religious reference and parallels to his situation. He reminds us to “love your friends and lovers, to lay down your life for your brothers”, a sentiment that is painless to relate to, especially in a time of agony. And with there also being a slight festive feel to the title track, not only due to the religious references, and with City of Roses having a uniquely folk feel, it is understandable why they didn’t make its predecessor; though that is not a reflection of the tracks as standalone pieces.

Whilst the remixes do add a new interesting dimension to Carrie & Lowell, with most of the remixes taking electronic inspiration, take Fourth of July (900X Remix) for example, my personal highlight from the remixes is Drawn To The Blood (Fingerpicking Remix). The fast paced, high pitched finger picking has a real mystical feel to it. There is a strikingly dainty warmth from the guitar with a melancholic pain oozing from Sufjan’s voice, creating an interesting and likely realistic dichotomy of emotion. However, the need for two versions of Drawn To The Blood seems somewhat unnecessary on one mixtape, it would have been nice to have had one saved for a future release.

But it is the Demos that are most haunting, in particular, closing track Carrie & Lowell. With a vocal cracking so painfully yet so delicately, Sufjan shows himself at his most vulnerable moment. Near losing his voice in emotion is truly heart-breaking and resurfaces the gut-wrenching pain that brought Sufjan to make Carrie & Lowell to begin with.

Sufjan is one of a dying breed, or at least it sometimes feels that way. I doubt there are many artists in the position that they could release this album. By that, I mean it feels there are few artists in today’s climate that would have an album of demos, remixes and outtakes of songs they have thought about, written, performed, sung and recorded themselves. But more than this, there are so few artists that perform with the sheer honesty of Sufjan. Whilst this may be a truer reflection of Carrie & Lowell, it is also true of The Greatest Gift. Not only through the release of new content, but part of me believes that the release of this mixtape is Sufjan expressing how he feels about the loss of his mother two years on. An update to his fans, revealing both mourning and an acceptance of the situation. Whilst sorrow naturally remains woven through, the electronic remixes show an ever so slight slight change of tone, revealing the positive closure that this album has brought him.