Sufjan Stevens’ new album plays out a pessimistic holiday season
Sufjan Stevens is no stranger to Christmas music. He is, in fact, close friends with Christmas music, maybe even lovers—or perhaps, given at times the inexplicable bitterness and oddity of his Christmas releases, ex-lovers.
In 2006, Stevens released a 42-track compilation of five years’ worth of Christmas-themed EPs, Songs for Christmas, and on Nov. 13 he released the follow-up, Silver & Gold: another five years and another 58 tracks, a blend of original songs and creative covers of classics.
Silver & Gold brings you about one-third Sufjan Stevens originals with appearances by traditional carols, Jewish hymns, contemporary standards, Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert and even twentieth-century Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Instrumentation is most often Stevens’ characteristic acoustic guitar, banjo and musical saw, with forays into unsettling electronics.
His musical signature remains distinct even as you can hear the stylistic experimentation over five years, from neat melodic arrangements to aural chaos and back. By Christmas Unicorn, Vol. X he comes to some semblance of neatness, though he arrives there a bit wiser and more jaded.
The first of the five-part box set, Gloria, Vol. VI, is the most coherent. Made up of half original songs, Gloria was recorded with the Dessner brothers, of The National fame. Gloria opens with a rendition of “Silent Night” that maintains the spirit of the original with a beautiful rethinking of the chord progression, then proceeds to the instant classic, a buoyant, cheery “Lumberjack Christmas.”
Also included is a “Coventry Carol” with nylon-string guitar, banjo, violins and choir, “The Midnight Clear” in an understated 5/4 time and a charming “Auld Lang Syne” featuring banjo.
From here, the Christmas charm becomes clouded. In I Am Santa’s Helper, Vol. VII which is 23 tracks long compared to the other volumes’ eight or nine tracks, musical creativity spirals out into unfocused sonic experimentation.
These songs average one or two minutes, with the exception of the trance-like five-and-a-half minute “Christmas Woman,” in a 5/4 time that is no longer understated but rollicking, giving the listener the nauseating sensation of having three legs.
The remainder of songs on I Am Santa’s Helper are fragmented and half-baked; orchestration is scanty and songs never end satisfyingly.
A lot of the time Stevens steps aside and lets the instruments speak for themselves, and at other times voices fill the musical space with a capella arrangements or with the accompaniment of just a reed organ. The closing track is titled “Even The Earth Will Perish And The Universe Will Give Way,” featuring distantly tinkling piano over ominous rock-organ pedals with no vocals to shed light on the abyss. As you can imagine, I don’t exactly feel the Christmas spirit shining through here.
Things lighten up in Christmas Infinity Voyage, Vol. VIII, but not much. In “Angels We Have Heard On High,” Stevens trades fours, as it were, with the original carol, interjecting his own lyrics in between each line. Starting on “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” however, I had to avert my eyes. It is a nine-minute-long slip-up, a canned drumkit and a voice with so much electronic manipulation as to make it unrecognizable.
“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” similarly sounded like a demo on a toy keyboard I had in the 90s. Proceeding, however, to “Christmas in the Room,” another original song, the electronic manipulation is toned down and the Christmas spirit found in time spent with family and friends is tangible.
Stevens croons, “No travel plans, no shopping malls / No candy canes, no Santa Claus / And as the day of rest draws near, it’s just the two of us this year.”
The electronic effects take a backseat in Let It Snow, Vol. IX. With a return to coherent arrangements, Stevens makes good use of extra voices, as well as jingle bells, to give the impression of a joyful Christmas gathering. “Sleigh Ride” channels an edgy lounge jazz trio; “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is tastefully given a minor-key makeover, evoking the presence of the snow itself rather than the slowly-dying fire, and calling into question the words “as long as you love me so.”
For the most part, these Christmas songs are not for the child at heart. Though he at times channels boyish Christmas excitement complete with visions of sugarplums, the music more often than not goes from innocent excitement to chaotic drunken reveling.
These are songs for the adult with mixed feelings about the holidays, longing for simpler times but stuck with the knowledge that, as Stevens writes in an essay in the liner notes, “we will never really get what we want for Christmas, or in life, for that matter.”
To purchase Sufjan Stevens’ Silver & Gold, visit: http://music.sufjan.com/album/silver-gold.