In recording 101 songs about the holiday season over a ten year period, it’d be fair for you to assume that Sufjan Stevens enjoys Christmas with an unconfined, childlike innocent spirit, unburdened by the worries that it might bring out in other people. Add to this the contents of the boxed set for Silver and Gold (and that of Volumes I-V of his Songs for Christmas output) which includes posters, temporary tattoos and essays, and then the frankly insane promo videos that we’ve had, and you’re looking at – on face value – a Christmas obsessive up there with the likes of the fella who eats a Christmas dinner every day of the year, and never, ever takes down his decorations. Sufjan, surely, has to love the season doesn’t he?
Well, no. It’s just not as simple as that. If we delve deeper we find that yes, Sufjan does clearly have an affinity with Christmas but his love is cut with large doses of worry, loneliness, arguments and the constant battle between the religious and the secular. We’re aware of the church-versus-state nature of Stevens’ music through his best record Seven Swans, on which he based the songs on the stories from his Christian faith; but rather than being a conversion record it just focused on religion on a more personal level than the broader themes found, for example, on his Michigan album. And so the songs on Silver and Gold can be seen as a mix of those two records: we’re faced with a mix of covers of traditional religious and secular songs, plus a whole raft of Sufjan originals that on some occasions combine the two themes (Jesus and aliens, anyone?). Volumes VI-X of his Christmas songs also serves notice of an artist in conflict with himself and is a snapshot of a transition period from the Stevens of Illinois to the man who gave us both the misguided The BQE and the brilliant sudden-right-turn of The Age of Adz.
On record as being something of a serious child and teenager (detailed, with regret, on The Age of Adz track ‘Now That I’m Older’), the Christmas songs could be seen as a way for Sufjan to revisit that lost childhood and deal with the wonder – and familial issues – that the season brings. Through 59 tracks we join Stevens on a journey of extreme highs and plumbed depths and although it’s not always a complete joy to listen to it stands as a testament to his undoubted artistic brilliance and ambition. The collection begins with Gloria, recorded in 2006 and is the set that’s most likely to be warmly embraced by fans who want the Sufjan of Sevens Swans and Illinois. While Stevens might have moved on from those simply constructed songs – plucked guitar or banjo, spot-on choral passages – this disc contains two of the best original tracks in ‘Carol of St Benjamin the Bearded One’ and ‘Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)’. The latter is a classic example of the mixed feelings Stevens has towards Christmas, as he sings “Oh, father friend, will you punish me, punish me/With a look of contempt, with a look of contempt/I can’t recall” and elsewhere recalls a “terrible ghost”; yet he compares someone to a Christmas tree in the way they “light up the room”, and as a choir of voices join him, you can feel the joy course through Sufjan just as it courses through your own veins.
I Am Santa’s Helper is perhaps the weakest of the five discs; it sounds like Stevens is distracted for the entire 23-song experience, tossing off a whole bunch of short tracks that go nowhere. Even when a song such as ‘Happy Family Christmas’ starts in such a gorgeous fashion, it’s close to being destroyed by Sufjan re-creating a guitar solo with his mouth: I mean, I love him to death but even I will draw the line at him making the noises “weeow, wow-wow, weeow, wow-wow” instead of an actual solo. It’s interesting to note that this was recorded at the same time as the extravagant The BQE experiment so perhaps Stevens was a little short of time. Despite this, the various, and equally lovely, versions of ‘Ah Holy Jesus’ are worth seeking out.
If we gloss over the very straightforward (perhaps uneventful, even), canonical contents of Let It Snow, out of all the discs, Christmas Infinity Voyage is the one that’s key in more ways than one. It appears as a re-recorded version of an EP Stevens dropped in 2008, in the run up to making the music that appears on Adz, and admits wasn’t up to scratch – but he’s revisited the tracks with greater experience of electronic music and the results are stunning. It’s Sufjan-in-transition, an artist getting comfortable with moving away from the restrictions of pure storytelling, facing up to personal crises and fully committing to the experimental.
From the moment the incredible, glitch-laden take on ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ begins, it’s special stuff; the nine-minute autotune-heavy ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ is an insane journey through Stevens’ electronic gadgetry, ‘Christmas In the Room’ is one of the most touching songs – Christmas be damned – he’s written. The song might be the best example of the marrying together of the old and new Sufjan, as sharp guitar chords and beautiful harmonies meet measured beats and subtle electronics, as Stevens sings “No travel plans/No shopping malls/No candy canes/No Santa Claus…. It’s just the two of us this year”. Add to this the heady noise-out of ‘The Child With the Star On His Head’ and a why-the-hell-not cover of Prince’s ‘Alphabet St’, and then it amounts to the best of the volumes so far.
You could forgive Stevens for letting his game drop a bit, but the final volume, Christmas Unicorn, is another triumph. It hangs on three out of the final four tracks: ‘Happy Karma Christmas’ is so brilliantly downbeat it should be on an album of funeral songs, while ‘Justice Delivers Its Death’ revisits the morbid beauty of ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’, but with a festive twist. However, Sufjan saves the crowning glory for the last of the 59 tracks; ‘Christmas Unicorn’ reveals, backed by harp and a choir of angels, that Stevens is the titular animal, “a construct of your mind”. The track builds and builds, through various reeds, strings, layered voices and juddering beats before, slowly, you realise that the choir of voices is now chorusing “Love, love will tear us apart, again” over and over. It’s a stroke of utter genius – how could we not have realised the Joy Division track was in fact the perfect Christmas song? When the melody rises out of the mess of instrumentation it’s like someone grabbing your heart and squeezing it with the most loving embrace, a glorious moment that almost outshines everything before it… excuse me, I think I’ve got something in my eye…
It’s a lot to get through, but working your way through Silver and Gold is entirely worth it. Sufjan Stevens probably speaks for the rest of us when he reveals his conflict of feelings over Christmas: sure, we love the presents, the food, being around family and all the rest, but there can’t be a soul out there who’s not experienced the downside of arguments, loneliness and crises of faith. But when you feel like that this year, you know where to turn – Sufjan’s been there at least 101 times. You’re not alone.