It has been an incredible year to be a Sufjan Stevens fan, probably the best year since 2005 or perhaps ever. We have received
Planetarium, a luscious live record, “Tonya Harding”, and The Greatest Gift. Stevens has always been prolific, but delicate. Nothing in his whole discography seems forced. Many items are random or unexpected but all have his soft sense of purpose.
One of the joys of Stevens fandom is his deck-clearing releases. After his magnum opus
Illinoise we got The Avalanche – an underrated collection of Midwest brilliance that could have weighed down its parent record to double length. As a prequel to The Age of Adz we got All Delighted People which broke a half-decade pop song silence and contained some of the best tracks of those sessions – “The Owl and the Tanager” and others.
Carrie and Lowell, Stevens’ best reviewed record in ten years, we are getting an album of remixes and bonus tracks. “Wallowa Lake Monster” could have made Carrie and Lowell the Oregon state album from the long dormant / abandoned project. It’s a beautiful body of water almost a mile above sea level in the northeast corner of the state. It’s the mix of fantasy and reality that has long made Stevens’ albums so precious and with more obscure and abrasive lyrics coming from his songs – “Wallowa” is a welcome return to a more typical Stevens.
These lakes and towns and people take on their mythical status in his imagination and our world. I was driving in Michigan last summer and saw a sign for “Pickerel Lake” I couldn’t help but take the exit and visit. It’s a rarity for single songs to bridge the gap to choices that we make, but that’s the power of Stevens’ tunes. Part of being a Sufjan fan is wondering what the “California” or “Maine” record would have sounded like. But these clues dropped here allow us see what one of the other 48 could have been.
Taking also into account the exculpation of the painfully beautiful “Tonya Harding” – a spiritual follow up to “John Wayne Gacy” and her birthplace of Portland even more shades of the potential “Oregon” record are filled in. Can’t you picture it – “Welcome Oregonians” or some cool name plus a track about the ’90s computer game “The Oregon Trail” plus a song about the Salem witch trials. Too bad it will probably never exist.
The remixes are nice – none add any legs to the songs or bring anything other than a fresh take on beautiful songs. “Drawn to the Blood” is Stevens’ remix of his song from a more Age of Adzy angle, we also get another version of the song from a
Seven Swans point of view. The “Death with Dignity” remix is nice enough but can’t improve on the tender balladry of the original. The iPhone demos show rawer versions of “Carrie and Lowell” and “John My Beloved”, and they also give a barer vision of why Stevens is so talented as none of the emotion is lost. They also give a nice view inside how little Stevens needs the studio to make compelling creations. These inside angles also show how Stevens has filled the hole Elliott Smith left when he passed.
The big draw to this record is the B-sides – “The Greatest Gift” is a tender, Christian exploration, “Exploding Whale” which was released elsewhere finds a better home here as a slight remix. Others include “The Hidden River of My Life” and “City of Roses” both small, beautiful ruminations but in a year where those two immaculate soundtracks songs were released on the
Call Me By Your Name soundtrack its hard to see as much here as in a sparser release year.
The Greatest Gift is a record for those who are already Stevens diehards, and there are a LOT, including myself J. 2017 was deck clearing for our indie hero – finally releasing the old Planetarium project, the live record, extra tracks and using this mixtape to close the chapter on his most fruitful studio season since Illinoise.