If Aficionados of Sufjan Stevens have been very good they get a wonderful Christmas present, a collection of his songs released for the holiday season. In both 2006 and 2012, Stevens presented a prolific collection of songs that celebrate the holiday season. They spanned from classic carols to modern angst-ridden tales of Christmases not “oh so magical”. Stevens’ latest Christmas time release “The Greatest Gift” is not a particularly holiday oriented release but contains significant dollops of Christian ideals along with a healthy serving of insight into his captivating 2015 release “Carrie and Lowell” ( See my original XS Noize review). “The Greatest Gift” is certainly an added unexpected gift from Stevens to his fans.
The Greatest Gift also marks the end of a super prolific release year for Stevens. This year Stevens released the collaborative project Planetarium with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister, a soundtrack for the movie Call Me by Your Name, the release of his recorded concert performance of Carrie and Lowell and finally The Greatest Gift. All of these releases make for a noteworthy year for Stevens and his fans.
The Greatest Gift contains 12 tracks which include never before released songs, remixes, demos and outtake iPhone recordings for Carrie and Lowell. Four tracks are new songs, along with 5 remixes tracks, 2 demos and a partridge in a pear tree, just kidding about that last one. Truly the release is a “pick and mix” of songs from various approaches that centre around the Carrie and Lowell era. Always one for collaboration Stevens sets loose Helago Negro on remixes of Death With Dignity and Drawn to the Blood while Doveman does the honours on his remix of Exploding Whale. Helago Negro’s remix of Death with Dignity is a fantastically nuanced interpretation of the song displaying all the beauty in the sorrow of the original recording. Stevens also presents two of his own remixes of Drawn to the Blood, which would seem excessive over-representation of one song but each remix brings another flavour, tone and perspective to the brilliant track. The remixes and demos also present an interesting glimpse into how Stevens develops his songs; presenting lyrics that are ever evolving until the final recording.
For the uninitiated listener of Stevens works the real showstoppers on this release are the newly recorded selections. Some are brand new and others are songs that have been bouncing around for awhile, played live and now finally seeing a recorded presentation. My absolute favourite of these offerings is the album title providing The Greatest Gift which follows in the vein of his prior Christmas albums. The song is informed by his Christian beliefs alluding to the Great Commandment and the idea of sacrificing oneself for others. Stevens never gets preachy and ingeniously includes in this brief song the idea of our imperfect lives and for Christians the belief that we are far from perfect but forgiven. The Hidden River of My Life also follows along much the same themes but with the added longing to able to see the world not as it is but as it should be. Sonically the selection displays all of Stevens’ abilities to bend and twist various musical approaches to his own desires. Another high point is City of Roses which is brilliant as it again interweaves Christian imagery with the terrestrial reality of our everyday lives. Here again Stevens never exempts himself from criticism; instead, he is the first to recognize all his wrong-footed whims and crotchets. Wallowa Lake Monster is the song most akin to the themes of Carrie and Lowell.
It is a track that again examines the disturbing images of Sufjan’s childhood reality. It continues the tragic narrative of Sufjan’s mother with lyrics like, “she was the monster when she was sick and drunk…a demon took her place as we waited for the waters to recede”. Counter-intuitively rather than be a dirge-like selection it is filled with a lovely etherealness reminiscent of Eugene and filled with pixilated sunlight, it is both evocative and haunting.
With The Greatest Gift Stevens provides significant evidence that he is the master of his sonic landscape. He can present a song in a multitude of different ways and convey as much meaning and emotion as his original presentation. The listener does not have to be familiar with Carrie and Lowell to appreciate The Greatest Gift but it does enhance the experience of listening to this latest release to have a passing familiarity with the iconic images and evocative emotions expressed in Carrie and Lowell. The album is certainly a must-have for Sufjan Stevens fans and provides background insight for those interested in the evolution of the exceptional Carrie and Lowell recording.