Words by Joe Booley.
Over two years since the monumental release of ‘Carrie & Lowell’, Sufjan Steven’s has released ‘The Greatest Gift’, a mixtape of outtakes, remixes and demos from his 7th studio album. ‘The Greatest Gift’ starts off with ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, a track that strikes as no surprise to those who have heard ‘C & L’, but in the second half it turns into a soundscape of brass, airy vocalisations and smooth synths.
Earlier this year we saw the release of ‘Carrie and Lowell Live’, accompanied by a film of Sufjan and his band performing the album in full, but with some very different arrangements to that of the album. We hear this in Sufjan’s own remix of ‘Drawn to the Blood’. Originally a softly strummed guitar track, in its new form it is drenched with electronic elements left, right and centre. This take us back to the sounds explored in ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and ‘The Age of Adz’. To add contrast to this track, there is a stripped-back version of ‘Drawn to the Blood’ just a few tracks later.
Title track ‘The Greatest Gift’ is quite an uplifting track in comparison to the sombre tracks spanning across this album, with Sufjan exploring the subject of his faith and loving one another throughout your life. Then jumping into a Doveman remix of ‘Exploding Whale’, a track previously released as a single in 2015, the remix takes a more laid-back approach to the originally electronic track. And you can’t but help giggle to yourself as you hear Sufjan whisper the words: ‘Embrace the epic fail of my exploding whale’.
Following on from the version of ‘Drawn to the Blood’, Helado Negro’s remix of ‘All of Me Wants All of You’ is possibly the closest we’ll get to a studio version of Sufjan’s live, synth-based arrangement. But with 900X’s remix of ‘Fourth of July’, this is an example of a blatant remix in comparison to the ‘rearrangements’ previously heard on this record, with glitchy instrumentation and manipulation of vocals, this is one of the only tracks on the record that doesn’t have a obvious Sufjan footprint to it.
Newly heard tracks, ‘The Hidden River of Life’ and ‘City of Roses’ are again incredibly uplifting, which makes it quite unsurprising as to why they may have been left out from the original tracklisting. Not only for feeling, but for subject as well. ‘City of Roses’ continues on the narrative of Sufjan’s faith, whilst ‘C & L’ follows quite a strict narrative of his upbringing and feelings towards his mothers passing.
To end the album is an ‘iPhone demo’ of ‘Carrie & Lowell’, almost to put an end to this era in Sufjan’s career. To end where it all began. With these two people. The track is stripped bare, much like the rest of the original album, but this time at maybe his most fragile. His voice sounds broken and on the verge of tears, only drawing the listener closer to him.
This collection of outtakes, remixes and demos can certainly stand on it’s own two feet, but I can only imagine this being enjoyed by long-time Sufjan Steven’s fans, or fans of ‘Carrie & Lowell’ itself.