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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Songs For Christmas


Noel: 1) Silent Night; 2) O Come O Come Emmanuel; 3) We're Goin' To The Country!; 4) Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming; 5) It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!; 6) Holy Holy, Etc.; 7) Amazing Grace.
Hark!: 1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) Put The Lights On The Tree; 3) Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing; 4) I Saw Three Ships; 5) Only At Christmas Time; 6) Once In Royal David's City; 7) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!; 8) What Child Is This Anyway?; 9) Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.
Ding! Dong!: 1) O Come, O Come Emmanuel; 2) Come On! Let's Boogey To The Elf Dance!; 3) We Three Kings; 4) O Holy Night; 5) That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!; 6) Ding! Dong!; 7) All The King's Horns; 8) The Friendly Beasts.
Joy: 1) The Little Drummer Boy; 2) Away In A Manger; 3) Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!; 4) The First Noel; 5) Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!); 6) The Incarnation; 7) Joy To The World.
Peace: 1) Once In Royal David's City; 2) Get Behind Me, Santa!; 3) Jingle Bells; 4) Christmas In July; 5) Lo! How A Rose E'er Blooming; 6) Jupiter Winter; 7) Sister Winter; 8) O Come O Come Emmanuel; 9) Star Of Wonder; 10) Holy, Holy, Holy; 11) The Winter Solstice.

General verdict: Santa Sufjan is coming to town, and for those of us who still celebrate Christmas, he's A-OK.

I confess that, going against my own rule of thumb, I have only managed to listen to this behe­moth once — after all, it is a whoppin' two hours of Christmas music, and it's not even Christmas season at the moment. It might have been easier to make five separate short reviews for the five Christmas EPs that Sufjan had diligently and meticulously presented for his fans from 2001 to 2006 (for some reason, missing 2004) before merging them all together in this one mega-package; but such an approach might make Sufjan look like a professional Christmas caroler, occasionally diverting the audience with a few minor side projects (Illinois, etc.), and make me look like I'm taking the message of Roy Wood's ʽI Wish It Was Christmas Every Dayʼ way too seriously.

In any case, my lack of diligence may be redeemed by an overall positive evaluation: ironically, this was the easiest and most enjoyable collection of Sufjan Stevens tunes I have had to sit through so far. The man may be a formulaic and mono-moody songwriter alright, ambitious be­yond actual capacity and smooth beyond reasonable tolerance, but in the context of Christmas celebrations, all of this actually plays to his advantage. I mean, all this time I have been talking about pixie dances in the everglades and about teddy bears playing chimes in dollhouses — well, in a way, that is what Christmas is all about, and Sufjan fits right in here: gimmicky enough to give the old standards some new spins, but not arrogant enough to spoil the Christmas mood with too many modernist or avantgardist deconstructions.

Each of the five volumes is a mix of traditional carols and Sufjan originals, with the latter gradu­ally taking over the former so that Joy, the last volume, is almost completely comprised of new music. If you wanted to, you could easily isolate the originals and end up with a full extra CD of new music — but you shouldn't want to, since the very idea is to integrate the old with the new, and some of the arrangements that Stevens comes up with for the oldies are just as important to the experience as his own songs. As usual, many of them are based upon drones / vamps with endless repetition of the same chord, but at least now you can explain that away as imitations of sleigh bells. Santa has a long journey through snowy roads ahead of him, after all.

In between standards, Sufjan weaves in occasional humorous vignettes — ʽGet Behind Me, Santa!ʼ, in particular, is a funny dialog between Santa and a protagonist who is sick to death of the Christmas season ("I don't care about what you say Santa Claus / You're a bad brother breaking into people's garages"), presided over by a poppy horn riff that might, in fact, be more memorable than any such stuff on Illinois. There is also a bit of space for intimate sentimentalism: ʽDid I Make You Cry On Christmas Day?ʼ is a song of semi-repentance for a strained relation­ship, with a tender falsetto chorus that is more oriented at people listening in dark reclusion than people having fun over a family Christmas dinner.

Most of the tracks are reasonably short, too, which is a plus in my eyes, since I have never con­sidered Stevens to be a master of extended mesmerizing codas. The most obvious exception is ʽStar Of Wonderʼ off the last EP, of which he probably thought that its piano-based groove, when properly sprinkled with additional kaleidoscopic bursts of falling stars, made for a good hypnotic experience. It really does not — the production, as is usual with Sufjan, does not have sufficient depth, and the "I see the stars coming down there..." singalong harmonies are too wispy and ghostly; but if we are just talking straightahead Christmas ambience, why not?

I suppose it also goes without saying that, since the material covers a five year period, you will see some signs of Sufjan's musical evolution — particularly noticeable if you play Noel and Joy back-to-back: the first EP is quite minimalistic, relying more on banjos and acoustic guitars for accompaniment than anything else, whereas the last one is in full-fledged Illinois mode, with multiple overdubs of keyboards, strings, woodwinds, and whatever else is available. However, on the whole the transition is so gradual that if you choose to listen to all five EPs in a row, like I did, you might not even notice it. Sure, Sufjan's arsenal of musical technologies may have increased significantly over the years, but his butter-smooth personality has remained stable and monolithic: from the opening anthemic declarations of ʽO Come O Come Emmanuelʼ to the closing anthemic declarations of ʽHoly, Holy, Holyʼ we witness the exact same rock-steady meekness of spirit — which gets so annoying on so many of the man's Big Artistic Statements, but seems so adequate on his Christmas offerings.

Bottomline predictions: if you like Sufjan Stevens in general, you will like Songs For Christmas in parti­cular. If you consider Sufjan Stevens a Holy Man of God, you will play Songs For Christ­mas at least once every year. And if you are indifferent to Sufjan Stevens, but Christmas has some sentimental value for you, you might want to try and give this one a spin — it is quite a possibility that Sufjan's way into some people's hearts might lie through their chimneys.


  1. Still stubbornly clinging to that yellow font on white background, eh?

  2. Who is this Sufjan? Did he give himself the name Stevens to replace Cat after his conversion to Islam? And he is going to replace Gram Parsons as a great unsung genre creator in 40 years? The mind boggles.

  3. Pretty unusual for a Christmas album to stand as one of the highlights of an artist's career (Phil Spector excluded) but here we are.

    George, I realize you're probably just listening to mp3s of these albums, but the liner notes and packaging of this one were a lot of fun, including comic illustrations of the lyrics and chord charts for the songs.

    More significantly, the liner notes describe Sufjan's conflicted feelings about Christmas going back to his own slightly traumatic childhood experiences (that line about a parent throwing presents in the fire was based on a real experience) and how an incident involving burning pancake batter helped him appreciate Christmas again. Provides some interesting context for the album anyway.

  4. Mr just keep going with yellow I like it .... Splendidly yellowing ...