Outtakes and B-side albums should naturally be approached with incredulity. Typically reserved for die-hard fans looking to glean the slightest amount of insight into the creative process behind the opus from which its tracks are culled, demo collections rarely offer more than a tentative glimpse into the vicissitudes their songs took before making the final cut. They’re often superfluous and almost always indulgent. At any rate, packaging and selling throwaway songs and other odds and ends smacks of avarice on the part of the artist’s record company. Interest-piquing at best and tedious at worst, rarity albums bespeak a certain penuriousness in relation to the artist’s label, as Morrissey so concisely (and ham-fistedly) explained on “Paint a Vulgar Picture.”
But with Sufjan Stevens, putting out extraneous material has never felt like an easy cash-grab. Between his Christmas albums, his multimedia tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and a host of collaborative efforts, Stevens’s semi-canonical work has always evinced more passion than greed, more creative ebullience than contractually obligated productivity.
The last time Sufjan Stevens released a supplementary album of BTS material was 2006’s The Avalanche, a formidable 75-minute companion album to the coeval hypo-record Illinois. But while the 21 songs on Avalanche were an embarrassment of riches, The Greatest Gift, Stevens’s accompanying “mixtape” to 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, is a comparatively more modest proffering, clocking in at just under 50 minutes and doubling down on the intimacy and minimalism that made Carrie & Lowell so radical in the wake of The Age of Adz.
Although he’s displayed an astounding facility for bombast on albums like Illinois and Adz, much of Stevens’s body of work is comprised of staid, intimate songs detailing complex interpersonal relationships. And The Greatest Gift reaffirms that his penchant for starkness is more than just an affectation. The demo tracks certainly illustrate Stevens’s preference for the quieter end of the dynamics spectrum, but even on the album’s remix cuts, there’s a pervading minimalist principle that prevents these songs from becoming overwrought or indulgent. While the first remix of “Drawn to the Blood” treads a folktronica territory similar to that of Adz, it never reaches the heights of, say, “Impossible Soul.” The same is true of Helado Negro’s reworking of “All of Me Wants All of You:” the final minute of the song crescendos into an ostensible climax, but it ultimately remains subdued as a reminder that this is a song about a fissured relationship, not one of unbridled lust. By retaining the muted, intimate aspects of C&L, The Greatest Gift continues the closely controlled, borderline stoic transmutation of Stevens’s emotions into challenging, nuanced lyrics.
Stevens’s constant struggle with his faith has effectively kept him out of the Masonic niche of Christian rock, that aggressively wholesome genre wherein mainstream/crossover appeal is all but impossible. And it’s this very ambivalence that has granted Stevens such sustained success in the secular world of indie music. At the core of his songs are human travails and uncertainties, which are the bread and butter of a genre that revels in self-deprecation and recognizing one’s own shortcomings. Yet on The Greatest Gift, Stevens doesn’t suppress his religious propensities, nor does he figure God as a gauge to measure his flaws and missteps; instead, he regains some of the faith he so ardently grappled with and lost on Carrie & Lowell.
“City of Roses,” one of the five tracks not initially featured on Carrie, finds Stevens encountering redemption as a figurative sunbeam gleaming through an overcast sky: “A break in the clouds is a break in my day/ Face the sun of my salvation.” Where Carrie & Lowell’s “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” tracks its narrator abjuring his faith in the wake of personal crisis, “Roses” sees a newly ennobled Stevens leaving the East Coast in a Lot-esque defection to this “City of Roses” and all the promised “delight[s]” therein. The mixtape’s title track similarly extols religious fealty as panacea to trauma. Confronted with vexations including “the mystery of the cross” and a symbolic fountain of sorrow, Stevens discovers refuge in the communal love of his brothers, “the greatest gift of all, and the law above all laws.”
Because remixes seem to be tailor made for genres such as dance and hip-hop, reimagining indie rock songs (or any kind of rock songs, really) are often dubious endeavors. Perhaps it’s because remixes tend to place emphasis on the rhythm section — and consequently create a more groove-based track than their source material — that rock remixes are so dicey. But regardless of the reason, rock reworkings typically feel like an unnatural conjunction between two incongruous styles of music. The producers on The Greatest Gift who lend their talents to reworking Stevens’s songs are indisputably qualified to do so, yet certain numbers feel somewhat sullied by these new mixes. 900X’s refiguring of “Fourth of July” is able to maintain the emotional richness of the original, yet its inclusion of 808 drums will, at the very least, raise a few eyebrows. Even on Stevens’s remix of his own “Drawn to the Blood,” the choice to insert bending synth lines asks the question of what exactly he’s trying to do with some of these remixes. For all of the pathos here on The Greatest Gift, there is still the occasional musical blunder.
Above all else, The Greatest Gift serves as a revisitation of grief. The remix songs attest that while it may take on new forms, it never fully goes away. The demo tracks of “John My Beloved” and “Carrie & Lowell” demonstrate that the initial grief from a loss can remain recognizable, nearly unaltered, even years after the fact. So while The Greatest Gift may not contain all the insight and manifest artistry of one of Stevens’s studio albums, at the very least, it reasserts his perspicacious understanding of his complex emotions and propensity for self-evaluation.