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Sufjan Stevens’ The Greatest Gift is ambitious and unsettling

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In April 2017, Sufjan Stevens graced the world with a heart-shattering, cathartic live version of his wonderful, highly emotional 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, which marked a brief return for Stevens to his folk roots. It was a splendid addition to his already brilliant and variegated oeuvre – what could be more emotionally unsettling than an album about the death of one’s mother and the process of mourning, if not a full live version of it?

Scepticism is the first inevitable reaction to Stevens’ latest release

Flash-forward to just two months later, in June 2017, Stevens released a collaborative album with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. It is an ambitious, hour-long, space odyssey through our solar system in music-form. It is a spectacular and daring experiment, and an undeniably successful one. Now move on to November 2017: the soundtrack to the film Call Me by Your Name is released. Stevens’ contribution consists of two brand new songs based on the plot of the film and on the director’s interpretation of it. Both songs have been sent to the Academy for award consideration. Not even a month has passed since, yet Sufjan Stevens does not seem to stop releasing new music: 24th of November, a new mixtape of demos, remixes and outtakes from Carrie & Lowell is out, entitled The Greatest Gift.

As soon as it was announced that this mixtape was to be released by the end of 2017, a question sprang to my mind: why? Does the world need two new versions of ‘Drawn To The Blood’? Why would I want to hear a remix of ‘Fourth of July’, one of the most powerful and painful songs on the whole album, whose re-mixing could only result in a form of desecration? Scepticism is the first inevitable reaction to Stevens’ latest release.

The album opens with a glimmer of hope and pain: ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, a dreamy, orchestral, mythical outtake from C&L. Then a remix of ‘Drawn to the Blood’. Then a remix of ‘Death with Dignity’. Then the iPhone demo of ‘John my Beloved’. The mixtape sounds disorganised, undeniably incoherent, but with a emerging from the song progression. The dichotomy between public and private, between intimate and other, is key. What can be more intimate than the phone demos of some of the most delicate and personal songs one has ever released? And what is more public and other than giving a song about your mother’s death to be remixed by someone else? While the contrast is not particularly pleasant to the ear, it is conceptually fascinating. The juxtaposition of each successive song, from the unexpectedly elegant remix of ‘Fourth of July’ to the heart-wrenching iPhone demo of ‘Carrie & Lowell’, which ends the album with a deep sigh, is successful in creating a sense of uneasiness, of both distance and proximity to Stevens’ story and of unexplainable nostalgia. The red string that connects each song, Stevens’ association between his mother’s death and the place where she lived during his childhood, Oregon, is twisted. Mourning and landscape are merged in an epic narrative, as they were in the original album, but the demos, the outtakes and even the remixes, seem to add anecdotal snippets to the pre-existing overarching plot.

The question, however, remains: was this mixtape a necessary addition to Stevens’ discography? My answer is, probably not. Is it a gift Stevens has decided to give to his listeners, to rest their hearts at peace by confirming the theory that Carrie & Lowell is an exploration of Oregon, and therefore subtly part of his interminable 50 States Project? Or is it a way to haunt us all one last time with the lovely ghost of his mother, a way of once and for all closing the chapter in his discography on his maternal loss? Are these good enough reasons to release this mixtape? To some, perhaps. Not to me. The mixtape is too voluntarily disordered, too consciously heterogeneous to be a rightful, worthy successor and continuation to Carrie & Lowell. It is not exactly “the greatest gift” it claims to be. However, it is not a bad one either. It’s that extra pair of socks we get every Christmas that we didn’t really want, and didn’t really ask for, but still wear.

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