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. It was also a welcome return to the gentle folk-pop style that Stevens used on his breakthrough albums of the mid-2000s, after forays into electronica, neo-classical music, mixed media experiments, Christmas jingles and so on. (Sufjan Stevens zigs when you expect him to zag. Always.)
For anyone who dove deep into Carrie & Lowell’s riches, Stevens’ new release—a “mixtape” of tracks connected to the project, called The Greatest Gift—should be tantalizing. If not for the demos and the remixes, then certainly for the four unreleased songs that come from the same sessions that produced the album. The best-case scenario: four songs that meet the standard set on Carrie & Lowell. The worst case: four songs that should’ve stayed on the cutting-room floor. Either way, they’re worth hearing.
The opener of The Greatest Gift is the strongest of the four, a seven-minute collision of fluttery fingerpicking and Oregon folklore called “Wallowa Lake Monster” that, sonically, bridges the gap between Carrie & Lowell’s austerity and Stevens’ grander inclinations. It references the biblical sea monster Leviathan, Nez Perce Indian Chief Joseph, demons and peace lilies, and it ends with three minutes of angels singing amid synth zaps. It is stunningly gorgeous.
The album’s previously unreleased title track is an ode to love, joy, peace and faithfulness, set to a jaunty tune. It is lovely—a keeper, for sure—but you can see why it didn’t make Carrie & Lowell; it feels more like an epilogue than an essential piece of the puzzle. The same, generally, can be said of “The Hidden River of My Life,” which could’ve lived comfortably on Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois, and “City of Roses,” the least Carrie & Lowell of the outtakes. All are fine additions to Stevens’ oeuvre. They are also testaments to the importance of careful editing.
The Greatest Gift’s two demo versions offer exactly what you’d expect: a peek behind the curtain that Suf stans will devour, but others can likely live without. If you want to hear “Carrie & Lowell” without its tick-tock pacing or “John My Beloved” on acoustic guitar, here’s your chance.
And the remixes here are interesting, if not exactly life-changing. There are two of “Drawn to the Blood.” Stevens’ own reworking replaces the original’s insistent strum with heavy beats and pulsing synths, eventually blossoming into a beautiful latticework of vocals, rhythms and far-out sounds. The “Fingerpicking Remix,” on the other hand, is for completists.
Elsewhere, Brooklyn musician Helado Negro repurposes “Death With Dignity,” inverting its arpeggiated guitar and then adding ambient noise, strings, echo, beats, choral vocals and more, turning it into something full and lush and entirely different. And 900X (aka Stevens collaborator James McAlister) takes the blissful “Fourth of July” and surrounds it with a shapeshifting glob of thuds, chirps and other effects. By the time the song reaches its second half, its repeated refrain of “we’re all gonna die” feels ominous, contrasting the resignation of the album version.
The bottom line with The Greatest Gift is predictable. Big Sufjan fans need it, others probably don’t. And no one should start their exploration of the man’s catalog with this release. But beyond the bottom line—in the beauty of “Wallowa Lake Monster” and the way the other tracks here bring the brilliance of Carrie & Lowell rushing back to mind—is another conclusion: Sufjan Stevens is one of the best and brightest musicians we have. Here’s to wherever he’s headed next.