Since Christmas is the time of giving, it’s no surprise that Sufjan Stevens has given the music world a gift for the holidays. His stocking stuffer for his fans is called “The Greatest Gift,” a mixtape of demos, remixes and outtakes from his 2015 album “Carrie and Lowell.” On the release, Stevens takes us on a journey of songs that draw us deeper into the well of memories and nostalgia that was so well curated on that album. What results is a delightful release that adds another layer to the beautiful and cathartic experience that was “Carrie and Lowell.”
Stevens is coming off of a lot of new releases this year, including “Planetarium” an intergalactic journey of an album he collaborated on with Bryce Dessner of The National, James McAlister, and the composer Nico Muhly that came out this past summer. He also contributed to the soundtrack of the breakout indie film “Call Me By Your Name” out this fall. He wrote two new tracks for the movie, one of which is called “Mystery of Love.” Listen to it below.
“The Greatest Gift” features four previously unreleased songs, which expand upon the sonic world of “Carrie and Lowell” and fit into similar themes of nostalgia and memory, especially in Oregon, the state that inspired much of Sufjan’s work on the album. The first track on the mixtape and one of the new songs, “Wallowa Lake Monster,” stretches the mythology of Sufjan’s songwriting out into a nearly 7 minute track, referencing memories of his mother and underwater beasts along the way:
“As if you know the story of Wallowa Lake
Leviathan first hid in the deep where her children sleep
She kept them hidden from the plague
But have you heard the story of my mother’s fate?
She left us in Detroit in the rain with a pillowcase
Fortune for the paperweight”
Angelic voices and horn-draped ambience siphon the track towards its end, signalling the kind of epic maximalism Sufjan used on the gargantuan album “Age of Adz.” The track mirrors “Fourth of July” from “Carrie and Lowell,” which employed the same grandiose sounds to enhance the depth of Sufjan’s lyrics, finding comparisons between everyday experience and mythology intertwining in memory, creating the feeling of meaning that informs our experience of past, present, and future experience.
The best parts of the mixtape are the new songs like the title track and “The Hidden River of My Life” – the remixes are mostly fun, but don’t add much of anything new to Sufjan’s universe. For an artist that normally dazzles with his ingenuity and songwriting, the remixes mostly function as curiosities in this collection. The best of them is the Doveman remix of “Exploding Whale,” a single Sufjan released around the time of “Carrie and Lowell.” The reworked production adds an air of mystery that only enhances the track and its confessional lyrics:
“The thing I most regret
Is having to repress what I’m feeling
While expressing delight as a myth
Embrace the epic fail
Of my exploding whale”
Still, “The Greatest Gift” is a worthy addition to the Sufjan Stevens catalog and an insightful peek into the creation of an album and the ideas and feelings that surround such a process. For an artist like Sufjan, this only adds to the intimacy of his music, making “The Greatest Gift” the best Christmas gift he could have given to his fans.