By Hannah Wisterman
The season of the Christmas album is upon us, and as we start to pick our Yuletide tunes for this year, we will inevitably draw from the categories we draw from with all music: what we grew up with and what we found ourselves. If you particularly love music and particularly love Christmas, as I do, this is a golden period for the “found ourselves” category. Every year, I seem to find more (and increasingly obscure) Christmas songs to add in with my family’s collection. You could easily consider holiday songs the Easter eggs of the music scene—special gifts that are sometimes hard to find but infinitely rewarding.
Case in point: Sufjan Stevens’ enormous, magical, sonically rich holiday-themed repertoire. It’s difficult to describe the stunned glee I experienced when I first stumbled across my first taste of it. Imagine being a 14-year-old girl in her first brush with indie and finding a five-disc album of Christmas music by one of the forerunners of the genre. It was like getting Christmas for Christmas. Even greater is the fact that Stevens doesn’t just toss listeners a bone with a couple of kitschy covers. Between his 2006 and 2012 sets (Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold, respectively), Stevens has four hours and 50 minutes’ worth of Christmas music, including both covers and originals. Each set comes in at over two hours—Silver & Gold runs at almost three. If you enjoy both holiday tunes and Stevens’ work, well, your cup runneth over.
Songs for Christmas
Stevens’ first Christmas set, released in 2006 and clocking in at just over two hours, is the definite entry point for the whole collection. It nicely blends folk and Stevens’ knack for strange composition choices. There’s a wealth of banjos and guitar, but at the same time, “The Little Drummer Boy” has no drums; “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” features a heart rate monitor; and I cannot confirm but highly suspect that “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” utilizes some xylophone. But even with those unconventional features, it’s perfectly accessible, fitting right into the quirky-indie charm established by albums like Seven Swans and especially his B-sides and outtakes album, The Avalanche. If the Sufjan songs you know best are “To Be Alone With You” or “Chicago” (or frankly anything from Carrie & Lowell), this might be up your alley.
But you can’t fill two hours with indie folk and not get a little bored, hence a few detours that are a little more rock (“Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!”) or even a little more disco (“Get Behind Me, Santa!”). The album isn’t all lyrical smooth sailing, either. The aforementioned “Get Behind Me, Santa!” is a conversation with St. Nick himself, criticizing the materialistic side of Christmas. “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” plays out the relationship tension that always gets exacerbated by the holidays. But the songs are all fun or at least pleasant to listen to. There’s no room to be uncomfortable in this set. A little sad, maybe, but not uncomfortable. As we’ll see, that’s not a pattern Stevens holds on to.
Silver & Gold
Be warned: this is not for the entry-level Sufjan fan. (Which of course is why it was the first one I listened to as a kid, and therefore is the one I love a little better.) In two hours, it seems, Stevens can keep to at least most of a theme, but in three hours, he can’t help but get a little weird. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of really pleasant stuff in Silver & Gold, but there’s also a lot of nerve-jangling electro and dissonance. But that’s part of the package—the album is a callout against the modern approach to Christmas. The subtle jabs that Stevens took at secularism in Songs for Christmas turn into brass-knuckle punches in Silver & Gold. This time around, Stevens puts every bit of effort into reflecting the truth of the season—that it’s stressful, marked by intense secularism and a frenetic pace of living. The holiday season in a contemporary capitalist society is go, go, go, barely hidden under a mask of aggressively festive cheer.
“Joy to the World” is one of the many tracks that alludes to that. The first minute and a half is a pretty enjoyable carol, but as the two minute mark approaches, the Autotune sets in, as well as a virtual hailstorm of off-kilter synth beats. Eventually the vocals drop out altogether, leaving a two-and-a-half-minute amalgamation of semi-melodic punches of sound. It sounds chaotic and lonely all at once. The breakdown into static that closes the song makes it very clear: we’ve lost the spirituality of Christmas, not just in the religious sense, but by forgetting the role family and humility play in the holiday.
But it’s not all so bleak. Stevens is a truly gifted songwriter, and it shows most when he sings about matters of the heart. Christmas is all flash and capitalism—except when it’s not, like when we feel deeply melancholy, or remember how much we love our family and friends. “The things you want in life, you have to really need. This is a matter of life,” Stevens realizes in “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One”, one of his holiday originals. Paired with delicate guitar whose trills evoke twirling flurries of snow, the song becomes a heartwarming message that fits perfectly with the season. “Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)” is a yearning ballad that reminds us how much more poignant heartbreak gets around this time of year. “Auld Lang Syne” is sung as a traditional carol with a small chorus, and “Holly Jolly Christmas”, punctuated with hand-claps and jingle bells, has a kind of contained raucousness—both remind us of the homegrown joy we get out of companionship.
Will Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas collection get you hyped for the holidays? To be honest, probably not. But it may resonate with a part of you that knows that Mariah Carey Christmases are a lie. Christmas with Sufjan is sadder, more anxious, and it makes no plays at hiding behind a pop front. I don’t want to call it the everyman’s Christmas music, but it is definitely the cynic’s. If you want a collection to expose why Christmas sucks and then turn right around and show you the meaning in it, Sufjan is the way to go. And if you don’t need to go through that roller coaster of feelings, just pick and choose which carols you dig and save them in their own special playlist. (It may take some time, but if I can do it, and I have, you can too.)
But I do encourage you to stick out the ride. There’s a nuance to the holidays, a complicated relationship of loneliness, reverence, consumerism, and love, and Sufjan is really the only artist I’ve heard who’s made the effort to really tap into that. We need that sort of truth-telling, even for the holly jolly holidays.