Review Summary: Not the greatest gift but not without merit, either.
The lore of Carrie & Lowell
continues to grow almost three years into its shadow. In what was an emotional triumph for Stevens, that bare-bones folk record redefined his career – shifting focus from the tricked-out electronic experimentalism of The Age of Adz
back towards his poignant acoustic roots. The record, born from the pain and turmoil of his mother’s passing, will likely go down as his greatest singular achievement - with its emotional significance carrying it over other grander, but often bloated and pretentious, offerings. In that sense, The Greatest Gift
provides added insight to one of the most celebrated and devastating albums of the decade. With four offcuts that were recorded during the Carrie & Lowell
sessions, Sufjan’s mixtape possesses worthwhile gems for anyone who was captivated by the original tracklist. Outside of that, however, The Greatest Gift
is actually pretty average – an exercise in unnecessary remixes that adds so sparsely little in terms of creativity or additional interpretation. For what easily could have been a stellar four track EP, Sufjan finds himself navigating some pretty futile and at times downright confounding waters.
The honest truth is that none of these re-imaginings are actually that bad
, though – they thankfully avoid the club-remix trope while carefully toeing the line between the pristine acoustic picking of their corresponding originals and more of an electronic-infused atmospheric component. The problem with this, however, is that none of the remixes actually improve upon the original cuts, resulting in what feels like sacrilegious butchering of what many have come to consider holy ground. Transposing an all-acoustic album to electronic remixes is no simple task, but that makes Sufjan’s insistence on doing so all the more baffling considering that few-to-zero fans have been clamoring for an industrial remix of ‘Fourth of July.’ Nevertheless, that is what comprises three-fourths of The Greatest Gift
. Some of the better inclusions here are the iPhone demos, which aren’t remixes at all and add an extra layer of depth and emotion by removing the production frills that sometimes hid the emotional cracks in Stevens’ voice on the originals.
The main attraction here is without question the Carrie & Lowell
b-sides. Starting with the towering, nearly seven-minute ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, Stevens picks up right where he left off with the story of Carrie – comparing the mother from that folk-legend to his own: “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.”
The atmosphere of the song feels very much rooted in C&L
, and it easily could have been included on the record without sounding out of place at any point. The climax of the folk semi-epic comes around four minutes in, when it transitions from intricate acoustic picking to Stevens’ announcement of Carrie’s death (“When the dragon submerged, we knew she had died.”
) and haunting, apparition-like wails of a woman throughout the background. The monsters, dragons, and folk tales all seem like the pre-C&L
Sufjan, though, lending credence to speculation that the track was one of the first to ever be recorded for the album, eventually becoming discarded when the vast majority of the songs broke through on an actual human level. It illustrates the growth from where Carrie & Lowell
might have started – an elaborate, fantastical metaphor with devastating implications – to totally stripped down and vulnerable; as if Sufjan decided he no longer needed to veil his anguish behind imaginative stories and fictional characters. Soul-shatteringly beautiful, if you really think about it.
The other three offcuts aren’t quite as massive from the standpoints of emotional depth or sheer length, but they all add something nevertheless. ‘The Greatest Gift’ clocks in shy of two minutes, and follows the ‘Seven Swans’ approach of hushed vocals and acoustic picking, but the lyrics fall outside of the C&L
wheelhouse – and there’s nothing particularly gripping about it – so it is easy to see why it was left off the album. The same almost goes for ‘City of Roses’, which consists of a similar musical approach and length, but is considerably more wistful and depressing: “ It's a little-known fact that I can't cope / I’m the champion of repression.”
‘The Hidden River of My Life’ is far more prominent, with an addictive rhythm built out of stomp-beat drumming and gorgeous vocal self-harmonizing, all before the song plummets into an ominous stretch of droning ambience. Along with ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, these two tracks would have made the most sense to find on the original Carrie & Lowell
As a whole, The Greatest Gift
represents more of a mixed bag; like going through a Christmas stocking as a kid where you find both awesome toys as well as underwear. The discarded Carrie & Lowell
tracks will not disappoint any fans who revere that album and should thus be acquired - independent from the whole album - if need be. As the remixes stand, they’re fairly inoffensive on their own, but will likely not sit well with those who have developed a personal connection to the original cuts. They also have the disservice of being released during the same year that Sufjan was involved in two superior releases – the Carrie & Lowell Live
recording, which re-imagined and mixed the original tracks far, far better than any moment on the The Greatest Gift
, as well as the Planetarium
endeavor with Dessne, Muhly, and McAlister. With four gems to ascertain and possibly a few raw demos to garner additional meaning from, this album still serves as decent mixed tape with some measure of collector’s value for those who hold Carrie & Lowell
in the highest esteem and want to make that experience even more complete. Thus, Stevens’ offering here is certainly not the greatest
gift, but that does not make it without merit.