Carrie and Lowell was a devastating, fragile record that evoked harsh empathy with its breath-taking sadness and intimacy. Quite unlike anything else, it proved musically compelling in terms of both its crushingly mournful lyricism and sparse but often illustrious instrumentation.

As was the case with Sufjan Stevens’ previous landmark release Illinois in 2005, he and Asthmatic Kitty Records have released a companion album of outtakes, remixes and demos associated with his 2015 effort. Carrie and Lowell had nothing of the same sheer symphonic and experimental eclecticism of Illinois; and so, in turn The Greatest Gift is meant as more of a meditative, tasteful collection of alternative takes; rather than to act as a spillover for Stevens’ creative excess (as was the case with 2006’s The Avalanche).

‘Wallowa Lake Monster’ is reason enough for the release of The Greatest Gift. A singular gorgeous, repeater-pedalled, finger-picked backing track builds with heavenly singing and burgeoning synths akin to ‘Fourth of July’. Over the top, Stevens sings of his mother’s mental health and death in analogies of mythical monsters. Stretching to almost seven minutes, needless to say it’s stunning and the most impressive track here.

The remixes by other musicians prove a more mixed bunch. The best of these is Doveman’s remix, a more sensitive, lighter version of the scattered, electronic non-album track ‘Exploding Whale’. Impressive and (dare I say) a better version than the original, Stevens’ voice is more prominent and the instrumentation more progressive and structured. Helado Negro’s remix of ‘Death with Dignity’ is reliably compelling, sounding like Justin Vernon got hold of the original and added 22, A Million-esque synthesised background swells. 900X’s (a.k.a. James McAlister, Planetarium drummer) version of ‘Fourth of July’ is one of the weaker renditions on the record. The heavy handed electronic beats take away so much of the tender sadness of the original; the mellow, downtrodden keys being oddly replaced with louder beats and sprawling, rattling synths. The original song is such a wondrous example of how minimal instrumentation can prove so devastating, but that’s lost here.

Concerning his ‘iPhone Demo’ recordings of ‘Carrie and Lowell’ and ‘John My Beloved’, both are similar, less refined versions of those on original album. Nothing particularly new is revealed by these tracks; but if anything, this is a testament to the perfectly intimate production style of Carrie and Lowell. The intensity of feeling from being seemingly sat in the same room as Stevens in these songs really carries his emotion. These two demos are welcome additions to the Carrie and Lowell recordings, and give an insight into the recording process in ways a demo tape should.

Sufjan’s own remix of ‘Drawn to the Blood’ perhaps shows that 2012’s electronic artistic redirection in the Age of Adz was no temporary phase – a case exacerbated too by the instrumentals of his Carrie and Lowell Live album released earlier this year. The rich, deep synths are tremendous, and instead of losing their meaning, the lyrics appear ever more confused and poignant. Cries of “How could this happen?” seem so much more hopeless and pitiful engulfed in the chaos of ‘Impossible Soul’-like electronics.

The other outtakes on The Greatest Gift are enjoyable, pleasant listens – but not much more. ’The Hidden River of My Life’ is a lightly toned swarm of high speed finger-picking, electronic beats and wallowing background noise; whereas ’City of Roses’ could have been a cut from Seven Swans with its heavily religious overtones. ’The Greatest Gift’ is probably the highlight of these – offering a small glimmer of hope and happiness amongst Stevens’ overwhelming mournfulness.

The Greatest Gift is an appropriate accompaniment to Carrie and Lowell. A simple compilation of oddball tracks, it delivers enough to stand for itself - but is ultimately only really for the enjoyment of Stevens’ long-time fans.