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Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift (Album Review)

Thursday, 30 November 2017 Written by Ben Gallivan

It might comprise a selection of remixes, unreleased tracks and stripped back demos relating to 2015’s ‘Carrie & Lowell’, but Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Greatest Gift’ is strong enough to stand as an album in its own right.

‘Carrie & Lowell’ was an experiment in love and forgiveness following the death of Stevens’ mother and it found him grappling with overwhelming emotions. It was his most personal and heartfelt record to date. ‘The Greatest Gift’, while not a traditional b-sides and rarities collection, can be seen as a companion piece, showcasing different takes of much of the last record.

‘Carrie & Lowell’ was very much a departure from the albums that had preceded it. Released five years after ‘The Age of Adz’, it saw Stevens eschewing much of that record’s electronic trickery and getting back to the sparse instrumental roots of his earlier work, in particular 2003’s ‘Michigan’.

That makes the remixes here particularly interesting. No fewer than half a dozen tracks get the treatment, while Drawn to The Blood is worked over twice. It’s Stevens’ own interpretation that shines brightest.

The first of two remixes by Roberto Carlos Lange (aka Helado Negro) finds Death With Dignity given a distant feel; it’s not a million miles away from the original but that extra dimension works beautifully, as it does down the line on All of Me Wants All of You.

Doveman’s remix of Exploding Whale is also an album highlight, and a welcome addition as it previously only featured on a now hard-to-find 7”. The undisputed champion, though, is the 900x remix of Fourth of July. Perhaps the most dramatic of all the mixes, it turns a delicate tune into something more intense and menacing thanks to a driving electronic beat alongside added atmosphere to the vocals. For something classified as a mixtape, ‘The Greatest Gift’ offers a sometimes seamless reimagining rather than a stop-start trawl.

Of the unreleased songs, Wallowa Lake Monster opens things with Stevens’ fractured vocal paradoxically soaring over minimal instrumentation, while the title track is both stripped back and shimmering in its delivery. But, as much as ‘The Greatest Gift’ could be easily interpreted as a new Sufjan Stevens album for those unaware of its forerunner, it holds more weight when listened back to back with ‘Carrie & Lowell’.

The intricacies and quirks that accompany these new mixes really come to the fore in that configuration, with even the seemingly throwaway iPhone demos (John My Beloved, Carrie & Lowell) demanding repeat listening and comparison with the finished articles. A delightful aside while the wait for new material continues.

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