The release of Sufjan Stevens’ last album proper, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, proved him to be an artist still very much at the top of his game. A decade on from the breakthrough of Illinois, the album saw him swap that record’s lavish arrangements, and follow up The Age of Adz’s oddball electronics, for a return to the hushed folk and introspection found on 2004’s Seven Swans, this time themed around his parents in the wake of his mother’s passing. The album’s tracklisting seemed so perfectly formed – he tended to play all eleven tracks at subsequent live shows, as seen on the recently released Carrie & Lowell Live – that it’s almost difficult to imagine any other songs having ever been considered for inclusion, but The Greatest Gift mixtape compiles a few of the album’s outtakes along with new remixes and original demos.
‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, apparently only narrowly missed out its place in the original album, feels very much of a piece with the rest of Carrie & Lowell, as he sings “But have you heard the story of my mother’s fate?/She left us in Detroit in the rain with a pillowcase” over chiming arpeggios. He employs the biblical sea monster of Leviathan as a metaphor for her mental illness in his typical fashion. It’s as moving as anything on its parent album and seems like it was almost destined to be its centrepiece, but at almost seven minutes may have just pushed the record’s runtime into slightly bloated territory. ‘The Greatest Gift’ and ‘City of Roses’ on the other hand are both short and pretty at barely two minutes apiece, both a little bit too cheerful to have made the record, while the numerous historical references to Portland, Oregon between them start to recall the location-based storytelling of Illinois and Michigan.
The most interesting of these new offcuts, though, is the one that would have been the most ill-fitting for Carrie & Lowell – the infectious chorus of ‘The Hidden River of My Life’ could, however, easily fit on any number of earlier Steven’s earlier records, and it’s a delight to revisit this slightly more exuberant side of him in the wake of an otherwise downtempo record. The only disappointment is that the song itself fizzles out a bit too quickly to instead make way for some ambient noise and choral singing. Meanwhile, the one previously heard album outtake, 2015 7” single ‘Exploding Whale’, appears here in a gently remixed form courtesy of Doveman, a bubbling seabed of synth replacing the stuttering sounds of the original, though it remains as oddly jarring as ever to hear Sufjan utter the words “epic fail”, particularly in such a delicate piece.
The other remixes are a bit of a mixed bag. Sufjan’s own take on ‘Drawn to the Blood’ is an interesting electronic reinvention in the spirit of The Age of Adz, a hint at how the album could have perhaps ended up if he’d decided to continue treading that particular path. The Helado Negro remix of ‘Death with Dignity’ is soothing but not really different enough from the album version to warrant its inclusion, merely adding a few layers of ambience atop the original track, though his more electronic take on ‘All of Me Wants All of You’ fares better, and the 900x rework of ‘Fourth of July’ finally soars when it reaches that “We’re all gonna die” refrain.
The most arresting moment on this collection though comes in the form of an iPhone recorded demo of album track ‘John My Beloved’, just Sufjan alone with an acoustic guitar, no overdubs or studio polish, his voice straining slightly when he reaches falsetto. It’s Stevens at his most nakedly honest and it’s difficult not to picture yourself in the room with him while he’s playing.
This and the previously unreleased songs are essential listening, while the remixes and other alternate versions, like a finger-picked ‘Drawn to the Blood’, serve more as interesting curios than particularly vital additions to his catalogue. As the “mixtape” epithet would suggest, The Greatest Gift is a much slighter collection than Sufjan’s previous outtakes album, 2006’s mammoth The Avalanche, which felt more like an Illinois Part 2 than a mere assortment of that album’s many offcuts. Given the pace of his solo output nowadays though – aside from extracurricular work like this year’s Planetarium collaboration – it might be a couple more years before we get another studio album, and The Greatest Gift plugs that gap nicely for now. Cathal McBride