Release Date: Nov 24, 2017
Record label: Asthmatic Kitty
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Sufjan Stevens' most recent proper album, Carrie & Lowell, was one of the very best musical works of 2015. Devastatingly sad but steeped in hope, it's a 11-track meditation on Stevens' strained relationship with his mother and his reckoning with her death. Presented through sparse arrangements, quivering falsetto, and vivid narratives and allusions, Carrie & Lowell spills over with tangible emotion.
Despite its austerity, Sufjan Stevens' 2015 album Carrie & Lowell aligns more neatly with its immediate predecessors--the synth phantasmagoria of The Age of Adz and the baroque pop odyssey of Illinois--than it does with the singer's early chamber-folk. All that he learned in crafting those two epics he applied to the hushed reassembly of his grief after his mother's death, plus a little extra, all-purpose sorrow to boot. Carrie & Lowell sounds cavernous, covered with nooks and fissures and intimate production details--the multi-tracking of Stevens' worn, cracking voice, the barely audible sleigh bells sparkling across "Should Have Known Better" and the title track's windswept coda.
An outtakes and demos album can turn into a series of letdowns as you discover why songs that didn't make the cut and alternates of some of your favorite tunes from the original hadn't been shared hitherto. There's no such disappointment on this expansion of Sufjan Stevens' 2015 treasure Carrie & Lowell, an album which served a profound reminder that Stevens floats on a stratus all his own. In fact, some of the alternates here on The Greatest Gift mixtape are arguably more resonant as reinterpretations.
Billed as a mixtape rather than a proper album, The Greatest Gift finds Sufjan Stevens taking a second look at the music and themes of his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, a beautiful but sometimes harrowing and deeply personal examination of his relationship with his parents and the death of his mother. For The Greatest Gift, Stevens has given us four previously unreleased tracks that lyrically and stylistically are of a piece with the original album ("Wallowa Lake Monster," "City of Roses," "The Hidden River of My Life," and "The Greatest Gift"), an iPhone-recorded demo ("John My Beloved"), remixes of several other tracks, including two versions of "Drawn to the Blood," and "Exploding Whale," a non-LP single side. While the spare, stark approach of Carrie & Lowell would hardly seem to be traditional remix material, the reworked versions that appear here are executed with taste and skill.
Just when we all thought we were getting over the quiet devastation of Sufjan Stevens' 2015 masterpiece Carrie & Lowell, here he comes again, back at us with a "mixtape" offering outtakes from that album, remixed versions of some of its songs and - deep breath - four brand new previously unreleased tracks, omitted from the original, but recorded at the same time and very much of a piece in mood, theme and timbre. Anyone who adored Carrie & Lowell will feel themselves instantly re-immersed in its melancholy, sometimes brutal, always beautiful world listening to The Greatest Gift. Inevitably, the most interest will be devoted to those new songs: and rightly so.
Carrie and Lowell was a devastating, fragile record that evoked harsh empathy with its breath-taking sadness and intimacy. Quite unlike anything else, it proved musically compelling in terms of both its crushingly mournful lyricism and sparse but often illustrious instrumentation. As was the case with Sufjan Stevens' previous landmark release Illinois in 2005, he and Asthmatic Kitty Records have released a companion album of outtakes, remixes and demos associated with his 2015 effort.
Not the greatest gift but not without merit, either. The lore of Carrie & Lowell continues to grow almost three years into its shadow. In what was an emotional triumph for Stevens, that bare-bones folk record redefined his career - shifting focus from the tricked-out electronic experimentalism of The Age of Adz back towards his poignant acoustic roots. The record, born from the pain and turmoil of his mother's passing, will likely go down as his greatest singular achievement - with its emotional significance carrying it over other grander, but often bloated and pretentious, offerings.
S ufjan Stevens' 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, a reflection on the death of his mother, was one of that year's best, as the Michigan musician returned to the delicate, poignant folk that made his name. This companion piece features four songs left off the record, along with demos and remixes. The grandest of the offcuts, Wallowa Lake Monster, suffers in comparison with the far superior Should Have Known Better, whose melody it briefly shares, but The Hidden River of My Life is a gem - too uptempo and jaunty for Carrie & Lowell, its fingerpicking decorates lyrics charged with a happy curiosity.
T his is a mixtape of demos, remixes and unreleased tracks dating from Sufjan Stevens's magnificent 2015 album, Carrie and Lowell. The catnip for Stevens completists here consists of four previously unreleased outtakes - including Wallowa Lake Monster, a riveting song that weaves myth (monsters, feathered snakes, Charybdis), memories of his mother, and Stevens's feather-light electronic backings. The other unreleased gem on The Greatest Gift is City of Roses, a sweet-sounding track full of dread.
Sufjan Steven's latest offering 'The Greatest Gift' comes on the back of 2015's 'Carrie & Lowell', a poignant reflection on the death of Stevens' mother. 'The Greatest Gift' is a series of remixes, demos, and out-takes, as well as four complete songs left off the original release. There are still traces of a mournful Stevens although that dissipates amid the jaunty notes of 'The Hidden River Of My Life'.