Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – The Greatest Gift (Asthmatic Kitty)

Another beautiful release

It’s hard not to be touched by the music of Sufjan Stevens, his vulnerable, plaintiff style makes you care and gives the impression of total honesty. Not least when he sang about the death of his mother on 2015’s Carrie & Lowell. The Greatest Gift has the subtitle Mixtape Outtakes, Remixes & Demos from Carrie & Lowell, which pretty much says it all. These tracks consist of six remixes by various people including Stevens himself, three outtakes and two iPhone demos. This follows Carrie & Lowell Live that came out earlier in the year, but any danger of dead horses being flogged is offset by the variety of this offering, just.

The album opens with one of the outtakes, Wallowa Lake Monster, which details in poetic form, his mother’s death and thus is a lament. It has simple slightly distorted and largely electronically generated backing to which a fair amount of reverb has been added to create a sense of depth, a technique used in many of the songs on this release. Next up is Stevens’ own remix of Drawn to Blood, it’s similarities to the charming original are sparse, the voice has been tweaked with and the guitar replaced with beat driven electronica and it could be a bit smoother production wise. There is another remix of this song aptly called the Fingerpicking Version, which as Stevens is so adept at this style is far more successful, there’s a strong aural halo added to the voice but the banjo sounds beautiful.

Helado Negro from Stevens’s Asthmatic Kitty label has taken Death with Dignity and added sparkling echoes beyond and behind the voice, the vocal has also been doubled up and this combined with a deep beat that comes in for the final third of the track brings just enough variety to the song without smothering it. Negro also remixed All of Me Wants All of You using some nice synth bass beats, the result is less sympathetic to the original’s style but doesn’t get in the way. The first iPhone demo is John My Beloved, this sounds noisier than expected possibly because of the background but also has an immediacy and simplicity that is very appealing. It’s just voice and guitar so more like the Stevens of old and the crude quality of the recording combined with a looser version of the song does little to get in the way of the message.

The second iPhone demo Carrie & Lowell appears to be limited to downloads and is short at under two minutes but sounds very much like it was used in the finished mix, the intro and thin sound quality are very similar. Doveman’s remix of Exploding Whale has a dreamlike quality but a slightly forward balance while 900X does a nice job on Fourth of July, it’s beefed up a little and expanded with electronic frills but maintains the melancholy.

The Greatest Gift is probably for the completists, Carrie & Lowell is a beautiful album and this doesn’t enhance that aspect of it, rather it shows another side of Stevens’s style, one that’s more diverse but also slightly diluted.

Jason Kennedy

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