Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift

by Kyle Kersey Rating:8 Release Date:2017-11-24
Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift
Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift

Tis the season! It’s Sufjan Stevens’ favorite time of year, where he descends upon the music scene to spread Christmas joy and cheer, at least if his two behemoth Christmas albums are anything to go by (both running over an hour and twenty minutes and containing 42 and 58 Christmas songs respectively). This time, it comes in the form of a stocking stuffer mixtape, full of outtakes, remixes, and demos from Stevens’ intimate release inspired by the death of his mother (with whom he had a strained childhood relationship), Carrie & Lowell.

Because nothing says festive like coping with the depression and anxiety that comes with the passing of loved ones!

Long-time fans will no doubt remember The Avalanche, his 22 track collection of outtakes from his 2005 project Illinois (go listen to it, it’s great) that contained its very own cogent concept and themes steeped in Illinois folklore. It was also over an hour and twenty minutes long. This certainly is not that, if only for the fact that there is only fifteen minutes worth of actual unreleased material, with the rest of the forty-eight minute runtime leaning on remixes steeped in electronica and bare-bones iPhone demos. I suppose this is what makes it a “mixtape” as opposed to an actual album; less ambitious but also less fatiguing to listen to.

Sufjan’s love affair with indie-electronica is well documented by this point in 2011’s The Age of ADZ and this year’s ambitious collaboration with Nico Muhly, James McCallister, and Bryce Dessner (of The National) aptly titled Planetarium. Musically, “Wallowa Lake Monster” sounds more like a B-side off Planetarium than anything related to Carrie and Lowell, with its massive, spacious atmosphere and glitchy swells, though the lyrics relating stories of his mother and an old Oregon folktale break that illusion. I’d put it toe to toe with just about any of Planetarium’s A-sides.

His electronic remix of “Drawn to the Blood” comes off as more triumphant without losing the emotional resonance of the original. Producer Helado Negro’s takes on “Death With Dignity” and “All of Me Wants All Of You” is noticeably subtler, embracing the existing fabrics of the songs while filling in the gaps with more illustrious ambiance.

Biblical illusions run awash on the outtakes, such as “The Greatest Gift”, which makes reference to the crucifixion of Christ and puts Stevens’ sorrow in a context of flipping a coin into a fountain – which can be interpreted as representing how the sorrow we carry isn’t upon us, but upon Christ. He also references the flight of Icarus on “City of Roses”, a homey country banjo track layered with pedal steel guitar. “The Hidden River of My Life” evokes the spirit of the Oregon trail with its uptempo banjo layering and catchy chorus (“I'm a walker, I'm a dreamer/Treehouse greeter, Pentecostal preacher/I'm a rocker, yeah I'm a schemer/Compost preacher, pioneer believer), climaxing with a grandiose choir.

But perhaps the cut that caught my attention the most was the iPhone demo of “John My Beloved”, where all the atmosphere of the album version is stripped back to just a shaky voice and a guitar. It’s incredibly intimate, even heartbreaking as Stevens’ slurs his way through the chorus, his voice breaking with each passing word, compounded by replacement of the line “your tongue on my chest” with “my signature death” in the third verse. You really get the sense that he’s on the verge of breaking down through his soft, shaky falsetto – emotionally torn in all different directions by the passing of someone close to him yet so far away on a personal level.

For Sufjan Stevens fans such as myself, this mixtape truly is a gift, from one of the greatest songwriters of this generation.

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