Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Greatest Gift’

Primary Listen: Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Greatest Gift’

Enlarge this photograph toggle caption Andrea Morrison/Courtesy of the artist Andrea Morrison/Courtesy of the artist

Thanks to the artist

A timeless yet particular reflection on empathy and loss, Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 album Carrie & Lowell stripped away many of the singer’s flourishes to reveal something barren and reverent, compassionate and utterly human being. Posting in the wake of his mother’s loss of life, Stevens used Carrie & Lowell to grapple with their fraught and frequently absent relationship, only to locate pathways to empathy and forgiving kindness. It’s an album of uncommon tenderness and delicacy, rendered with subtle instrumental invention and uncanny grace.

Now, Stevens is certainly releasing a companion collection: The Greatest Present, a mixtape that recontextualizes and remixes many of Carrie & Lowell’s music, while placing them alongside four unreleased outtakes and Doveman’s remix of “Exploding Whale,” a monitor previously heard only on a 7-inch sole. By design, The Greatest Gift is less necessary than its counterpart, but it’s still an enlightening and frequently gorgeous conversation piece.

The set’s previously unheard tracks – “Wallowa Lake Monster,” “The Hidden River Of MY ENTIRE LIFE,” “Metropolis Of Roses” and the title track – each fit Carrie & Lowell’s sonic template while brushing against its themes, frequently beautifully. And, although iPhone-documented demos (“John My Much loved” and “Carrie & Lowell”) function as curiosities more than anything, a few of the remixes will be enormously powerful. The crushingly sad “4th Of July” wouldn’t appear just like the products of remixes, to place it lightly, but James McAlister (aka 900X) gives it a supplementary thrum of stress, adding ghostly results that talk with the song’s imagery without adding too fine a spot on it.

Stevens hasn’t released an official solo album since Carrie & Lowell, but he’s spent 2017 building the almost all of what could easily get minor projects: this place; a planetarium-themed collaboration with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and McAlister; and the brand new music he’s documented for the rapturously received film Call Me By Your Name. Each project has found a method to go beyond the ambition predicted of it – the calling cards of a musician who approaches everything he touches with a full and generous heart.

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