|Sufjan Stevens||The Greatest Gift|
Sufjan Stevens — The Greatest Gift (Nov. 24, 2017)¤¤ Sufjan Stevens is a singer~songwriter living in New York City.
Born: July 1, 1975 in Detroit, MI
Location: Detroit, Michigan ~ Brooklyn, NY, United States
Album release: November 24, 2017
Record Label: Asthmatic Kitty
01. Wallowa Lake Monster 6:52
02. Drawn to the Blood — Sufjan Stevens Remix 5:29
03. Death with Dignity — Helado Negro Remix 4:08
04. John My Beloved — iPhone Demo 4:17
05. Drawn to the Blood — Fingerpicking Remix 2:02
06. The Greatest Gift 1:52
07. Exploding Whale — Doveman Remix 5:27
08. All of Me Wants All of You — Helado Negro Remix 3:25
09. Fourth of July — 900X Remix 6:45
10. The Hidden River of My Life 4:05
11. City of Roses 2:14
12. Carrie & Lowell (iPhone demo) 1:53
¤¤ The hushed, acoustic textures of Stevens’ 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell, marked his return to indie folk. The Greatest Gift offers Carrie & Lowell remixes, demos and outtakes that simultaneously illuminate the album’s genesis and create a parallel~universe version. As fascinating as it is to hear a fragile, acoustic~based track like “Drawn to the Blood” reimagined with sweeping, pulsing electronic textures, it’s equally intriguing to encounter spare, unvarnished demos of “John My Beloved” and “Carrie & Lowell”, not to mention outtakes that stand tall alongside the original cuts.
by Sasha Geffen | NOVEMBER 29 2017 | Score: 7.2
¤¤ Though too scattered to stand alone, the various demos and remixes culled from Carrie & Lowell add new context and dimension to Sufjan Stevens’ masterful album.
¤¤ Despite its austerity, Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 album Carrie & Lowell aligns more neatly with its immediate predecessors — the synth phantasmagoria of The Age of Adz and the baroque pop odyssey of Illinois — than it does with the singer’s early chamber~folk. All that he learned in crafting those two epics he applied to the hushed reassembly of his grief after his mother’s death, plus a little extra, all~purpose sorrow to boot. Carrie & Lowell sounds cavernous, covered with nooks and fissures and intimate production details — the multi~tracking of Stevens’ worn, cracking voice, the barely audible sleigh bells sparkling across “Should Have Known Better” and the title track’s windswept coda. On the album’s companion anthology The Greatest Gift, Stevens opens a window onto the process of making and living with Carrie & Lowell, from its first tentative iPhone demos to the remixes performed onstage during its accompanying tour.
¤¤ Unlike 2006’s The Avalanche, where Stevens culled B~sides from the 90~minute Illinois plus a few alternate versions of “Chicago,” The Greatest Gift focuses mostly on reframing songs from Carrie & Lowell. Only four tracks here are previously unheard, and it’s easy to see why they didn’t make the album’s cut. “Wallowa Lake Monster” explores the same complicated maternal relationship that haunts Carrie & Lowell through the childlike lens of an aquatic cryptid, which would have thrown an odd third element into the album’s cosmology of stark realism and Christianity. While lovely, “The Hidden River of My Life” taps back into that interminable whimsy — “Suppose the world was not informed by real estate or power lines,” Stevens muses two minutes before declaring himself a beaver — and both “City of Roses” and “The Greatest Gift” could fit right in with Stevens’ many hours of Christmas music.
¤¤ The weary, spectral iPhone demos included here also shed some light into just how an album like Carrie & Lowell is born — in multiple, slow passes, with a lot of deliberation and labor between them. “John My Beloved,” sung into an iPhone mic, features lyrics that would later be tweaked: Stevens reads John for “some kind of stone” instead of “some kind of poem,” and there’s a “ring” and a “life~giving string” that feel a bit like stock objects from the Sufjan Stevens prop closet. In embryo form, “Carrie & Lowell” lacks that memorable coda, ending abruptly after the second verse. These unvarnished sketches hint at the way the entire album may have been written: not in a single outpouring but in halting bursts stifled by each song’s emotional weight.
¤¤ The highlight of the collection is easily the remixes, which tease out the compact stems of the original songs and let them flourish in open, flowing space. Helado Negro helms two remixes, of “Death With Dignity” and “All of Me Wants All of You,” and the way he unwinds previously buried vocal harmonies is enough to make you want a full~blown, album~length collaboration between the two artists. Stevens’ own remix of “Drawn to the Blood” hews close enough to the version on Carrie & Lowell Live, but with crisper vocals, while Doveman’s gentle take on the 2015 tour single “Exploding Whale” lends as much gravitas as possible to a song that contains the words “epic fail.”
¤¤ Though too scattered to stand alone, The Greatest Gift adds new dimension to Carrie & Lowell. It’s easy enough to read albums, especially those as moving as Stevens’, as ironclad cultural objects, produced once and then immutable. The Greatest Gift contextualizes the work more as a living document. It exposes shadows of the album’s past and future, and for that, it’s exquisitely generous.
By Ben Salmon | November 22, 2017 | 12:23pm | Score: 7.6
¤¤ Sufjan Stevens’ most recent proper album, Carrie & Lowell, was one of the very best musical works of 2015. Devastatingly sad but steeped in hope, it’s a 11~track meditation on Stevens’ strained relationship with his mother and his reckoning with her death.
¤¤ Presented through sparse arrangements, quivering falsetto, and vivid narratives and allusions, Carrie & Lowell spills over with tangible emotion. It was also a welcome return to the gentle folk~pop style that Stevens used on his breakthrough albums of the mid~2000s, after forays into electronica, neo~classical music, mixed media experiments, Christmas jingles and so on. (Sufjan Stevens zigs when you expect him to zag. Always.)
¤¤ For anyone who dove deep into Carrie & Lowell’s riches, Stevens’ new release — a “mixtape” of tracks connected to the project, called The Greatest Gift — should be tantalizing. If not for the demos and the remixes, then certainly for the four unreleased songs that come from the same sessions that produced the album. The best~case scenario: four songs that meet the standard set on Carrie & Lowell. The worst case: four songs that should’ve stayed on the cutting~room floor. Either way, they’re worth hearing.
¤¤ The opener of The Greatest Gift is the strongest of the four, a seven~minute collision of fluttery fingerpicking and Oregon folklore called “Wallowa Lake Monster” that, sonically, bridges the gap between Carrie & Lowell’s austerity and Stevens’ grander inclinations. It references the biblical sea monster Leviathan, Nez Perce Indian Chief Joseph, demons and peace lilies, and it ends with three minutes of angels singing amid synth zaps. It is stunningly gorgeous.
¤¤ The album’s previously unreleased title track is an ode to love, joy, peace and faithfulness, set to a jaunty tune. It is lovely — a keeper, for sure — but you can see why it didn’t make Carrie & Lowell; it feels more like an epilogue than an essential piece of the puzzle. The same, generally, can be said of “The Hidden River of My Life,” which could’ve lived comfortably on Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois, and “City of Roses,” the least Carrie & Lowell of the outtakes. All are fine additions to Stevens’ oeuvre. They are also testaments to the importance of careful editing.
¤¤ The Greatest Gift’s two demo versions offer exactly what you’d expect: a peek behind the curtain that Suf stans will devour, but others can likely live without. If you want to hear “Carrie & Lowell” without its tick~tock pacing or “John My Beloved” on acoustic guitar, here’s your chance.
¤¤ And the remixes here are interesting, if not exactly life~changing. There are two of “Drawn to the Blood.” Stevens’ own reworking replaces the original’s insistent strum with heavy beats and pulsing synths, eventually blossoming into a beautiful latticework of vocals, rhythms and far~out sounds. The “Fingerpicking Remix,” on the other hand, is for completists.
¤¤ Elsewhere, Brooklyn musician Helado Negro repurposes “Death With Dignity,” inverting its arpeggiated guitar and then adding ambient noise, strings, echo, beats, choral vocals and more, turning it into something full and lush and entirely different. And 900X (aka Stevens collaborator James McAlister) takes the blissful “Fourth of July” and surrounds it with a shapeshifting glob of thuds, chirps and other effects. By the time the song reaches its second half, its repeated refrain of “we’re all gonna die” feels ominous, contrasting the resignation of the album version.
¤¤ The bottom line with The Greatest Gift is predictable. Big Sufjan fans need it, others probably don’t. And no one should start their exploration of the man’s catalog with this release. But beyond the bottom line — in the beauty of “Wallowa Lake Monster” and the way the other tracks here bring the brilliance of Carrie & Lowell rushing back to mind — is another conclusion: Sufjan Stevens is one of the best and brightest musicians we have. Here’s to wherever he’s headed next.
Ben Beaumont~Thomas | Thursday 23 November 2017 20.20 GMT | Score: ***
Sufjan Stevens: The Greatest Gift review — upbeat return to whimsical ways.
¤¤ Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, a reflection on the death of his mother, was one of that year’s best, as the Michigan musician returned to the delicate, poignant folk that made his name. This companion piece features four songs left off the record, along with demos and remixes. The grandest of the offcuts, Wallowa Lake Monster, suffers in comparison with the far superior Should Have Known Better, whose melody it briefly shares, but The Hidden River of My Life is a gem — too uptempo and jaunty for Carrie & Lowell, its fingerpicking decorates lyrics charged with a happy curiosity.
¤¤ The demos are unnecessary, as is the echo and heft Helado Negro adds to two remixes, but there’s a pleasant Postal Service~style whimsy to others — recent collaborator James McAlister, AKA 900X, turns the “we’re all going to die” refrain of Fourth of July into a weirdly uplifting techno~pop affirmation. ¤¤ https://www.theguardian.com/
|Sufjan Stevens||The Greatest Gift|