Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – The Greatest Gift

By Emily DiAlbert, Contributor
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2017]
Rating: 6/10

Key Tracks: “Wallowa Lake Monster”, “Death With Dignity – Helado Negro Remix”, “Carrie and Lowell – iPhone Demo”

Despite its heartbreaking undertone, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell is arguably Sufjan Stevens’ most treasured release to date. The album delves into the dark corners of Stevens’ mind as he copes with the loss of his estranged mother, who succumbed to stomach cancer in 2012. Stevens pours his heart into each track, wrestling with suicidal ideation, anger, grief and regret. Stevens gives fans a deeper look at the sorrow he expressed in Carrie & Lowell with The Greatest Gift. Stevens’ latest album unveils four never-before-heard tracks, several inspired remixes and the gems that are his earliest demos, which were self-recorded on an iPhone.

Beginning with eerily-playful and inviting guitar, “Wallowa Lake Monster” serves as The Greatest Gift’s opening track. The Carrie & Lowell outtake seamlessly blends with the album’s theme of Stevens’ coping with the impact Carrie (Stevens’ manic, alcoholic mother) left. Stevens’ haunting voice tells the untold story (through music, at least) of his mother’s leaving the family when he was a year old (“But have you heard the story of my mother’s fate? / She left us in Detroit in the rain with a pillowcase”). Additionally, the haunting track directly compares her to a monster, (“…she was drunk all day / We put her in the sheet, little wreath, candles on the crate / As the monster showed its face”) and later on, a demon (“She gave us one last feature, the fullness of her face / As the demon took her place”) when drunk. Through his poignant tone, one can sense the state of bereavement Stevens was in when attempting to cope with being abandoned by his mother to her addictions and failing mental state. It’s a heart-wrenching track, but fitting.

Helado Negro‘s remix to “Death With Dignity” adds a new flare to the original Carrie & Lowell song. Looking back, the original needed something more for it to hit at full force with the realist punch that Stevens’ intended. Helado Negro filled in the precise missing pieces to complete the somber-yet-blooming track. He adds depth to the song by adding various spinning and shining instrumental components to the originally musically-bland score of“Death With Dignity”. The new additions give more weight to the track, awakening far more doleful emotions in listeners, which is paradoxically a good thing.

The iPhone demos on The Greatest Gift are the best pre-holiday presents a Stevens fan could receive. “Carrie & Lowell – iPhone Demo” is raw, beautiful and shows Stevens’ pain and depth through his seemingly-choked up voice. “John My Beloved – iPhone Demo” is no different, highlighting the rough, winsome nature of Stevens’ untouched talent.

Most of the other remixes and outtakes on The Greatest Gift, though, aren’t anything special—they’re just ok. Outtakes are outtakes for a reason, after all, and remixes usually end up taking away from a track’s true meaning anyway. However, you can, and should, pull the demos and maybe even the Helado Negro remix, away from this album and spin them over and over. These tracks encompass what Carrie & Lowell’s true purpose is, and they deserve to be commended. Since they align with the melancholic theme, though, grab a box of tissues first.

Listen here:

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