Sufjan Stevens

The Greatest Gift

Asthmatic Kitty

Nov 28, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Find It At: AMAZON

An outtakes and demos album can turn into a series of letdowns as you discover why songs that didn't make the cut and alternates of some of your favorite tunes from the original hadn't been shared hitherto. There's no such disappointment on this expansion of Sufjan Stevens' 2015 treasure Carrie & Lowell, an album which served a profound reminder that Stevens floats on a stratus all his own. In fact, some of the alternates here on The Greatest Gift mixtape are arguably more resonant as reinterpretations.

Diversions from original recordings are welcome detours. "John My Beloved" has an irrepressible beauty in whichever form it takes. Where the album version finds Stevens in hushed balance with piano keys that echo hypnotically, here on a basic iPhone acoustic guitar recording, the singularity of Stevens' songwriting carried into expression has never been more forceful and shaking. In these moments so unassuming, you realize how much of a natural he is.

A strength of Stevens' songwriting, especially of late, is his ease in fluctuation between sparse acoustic delicacy and grand atmospherics. That shifting of projection can happen within the frames of songs on The Greatest Gift. On the previously unreleased "Wallowa Lake Monster" Stevens begins his intimate parable through ethereal guitar string staccato before rocketing into a sonic region with the scope of what was heard on his recent joint project Planetarium. This leap in dimension returns in the remix of "Death With Dignity" by label mate Helado Negro whose imprint is felt deeply on his two Carrie & Lowell treatmentshe also remixed "All of Me Wants All of You"automatically directing you to his own catalog (last year's Private Energy is a pure delight). Then the 900X remix of "Fourth of July" begins like a Jon Brion score piece from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before turning weightless and ascendent, swirling about its minimal, dubbish, drum patterns.

A melodic sameness begins to emerge into the play of The Greatest Gift and this is a reasonable criticism of Sufjan Stevens albums in general, if you were dissecting. But mainly it conjures a nice place to float, with electronically blessed acoustic flurries falling all around you. The mostly uplifting wavelength it keeps also makes it a nice soundtrack to the holiday season and that's likely no coincidence with Stevens. Sufjan Stevens is in a phase of celestial trajectory and you can't help but wonder how his ambitions would translate into a more terrestrial concept album on another of the United States. For now though, there's enough enjoyment in his explorations. (www.sufjan.com)

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