It has been over two years since the release of Carrie and Lowell, the most sombre and deeply personal release of Sufjan Stevens’ career. It was also one of his most successful records too, both critically and commercially, with Exeposé giving it a perfect 5 out of 5. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Sufjan Stevens chose this moment to release the second album of outtakes of his career.
As always with such a release, it is difficult to be truly objective; after all, an album’s outtakes must inevitably have a reason for being cut. Despite this, the original tracks are superb and would have snugly fit in alongside the other tracks on Carrie and Lowell. The title track – barebones and clocking in at under two minutes – has Sufjan dwelling on the philosophical problem of evil and Jesus’s sacrifice – if he died for our sins, how can there still be evil in the world? He answers this in the chorus, running to his friends and lovers: ‘As I abide in peace / So will my delight increase’. In another track, ‘The Hidden River of My Life’, he builds to his verse with a reference to Psalm 57, asking God to awaken his soul, before listing all the parts of the world – both natural and industrial – that he represents. The track ends with an angelic choir chanting “glory to Canemah!”, a reference to the early settlement in Oregon, perhaps indicating that he believes the place where his mother lived to be a personal holy shrine. Sufjan has never had a problem referencing Christianity in his works, but he hasn’t been this openly influenced by his religion since his 2004 folk-rock album Seven Swans.
the most sombre and deeply personal release of Sufjan Stevens’ career
Together, these songs are far more optimistic than those contained in the final album released two years ago. The exception to this is the opener track, the nearly seven-minute ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, which details the complicated feelings Sufjan felt about his mother, both a demigod and a Demogorgon in his childish eyes. Still, it is hard to ignore the tonal shift here, and one may wonder how the original album may had been affected had these tracks been included in its listing.
The two iPhone-recorded demos add a lo-fi quality to the previously-released tracks. With these, Sufjan’s ‘Carrie and Lowell’ and ‘John My Beloved’ somehow become even more mellow, quiet, personal. The comparisons to Elliott Smith have never been apter. Not only do these demos stand equally against their equivalents, but they also serve as a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Carrie and Lowell album itself. Not even The Avalanche – Sufjan’s similar release of outtakes from his Illinois album – gave such a barebones look at the creative process, the skeletons which became the songs we now know.
the philosophical problem of evil and Jesus’ sacrifice
A sadly disappointing part of the mixtape is the remixes. Making up a majority of the track listing, these remixes – while not objectively bad – almost seem to betray the tone of their respective originals. Each remix has the unfortunate circumstance of being compared to the final mixes present on the original album. Comparatively, they seem almost exploitative of the deeply personal, self-deprecating feelings that Sufjan originally poured into these tracks.
Like most of his releases, this mixtape is an intimate affair, an exploration of Sufjan’s deeply-held, contradictory ideas. Even the remixes, while inconsistent, would be considered great folk tracks had they been included on another release. The title is appropriate – not a full release, this mixtape is truly just a gift from Sufjan to occupy us before his next album, whenever that may come. And, honestly, what a gift it is.