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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Silver & Gold


Gloria: 1) Silent Night; 2) Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christ­mases Past; 3) Coventry Carol; 4) The Midnight Clear; 5) Carol Of St. Benjamin The Bearded One; 6) Go Nightly Cares; 7) Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree); 8) Auld Lang Syne.
I Am Santa's Helper: 1) Christ The Lord Is Born; 2) Christmas Woman; 3) Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light; 4) Happy Family Christmas; 5) Jingle Bells; 6) Mysteries Of The Christmas Mist; 7) Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates; 8) We Wish You A Merry Christmas; 9) Ah Holy Jesus; 10) Behold! The Birth Of Man, The Face Of Glory; 11) Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling; 12) How Shall I Fitly Greet Thee?; 13) Mr. Frosty Man; 14) Make Haste To See The Baby; 15) Ah Holy Jesus; 16) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; 17) Morning (Sacred Harp); 18) Idumea (Sacred Harp); 19) Eternal Happiness Or Woe; 20) Ah Holy Jesus (A Capella); 21) I Am Santa's Helper; 22) ʽMaoz Tzurʼ (Rock Of Ages); 23) Even The Earth Will Perish And The Universe Give Way.
Christmas Infinity Voyage: 1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) Do You Hear What I Hear?; 3) Christmas In The Room; 4) It Came Upon The Midnight Clear; 5) Good King Wenceslas; 6) Alphabet St.; 7) Particle Physics; 8) Joy To The World; 9) The Child With The Star On His Head.
Let It Snow!: 1) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 2) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; 3) The Sleigh In The Moon; 4) Sleigh Ride; 5) Ave Maria; 6) X-mas Spirit Catcher; 7) Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; 8) A Holly Jolly Christmas; 9) Christmas Face.
Christmas Unicorn: 1) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 2) It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; 3) Up On The Housetop; 4) Angels We Have Heard On High; 5) We Need A Little Christmas; 6) Happy Karma Christmas; 7) We Three Kings; 8) Justice Delivers Its Death; 9) Christmas Unicorn.

General verdict: Another confusing walk between heartful reverence and creative irreverence.

Well, he might have been somewhat slacking with full-fledged original concept albums through the second half of the 2000s, but it turns out that one thing Sufjan Stevens held on to on a very steady basis was his Christmas schedule — from 2006 to 2010, not a single December passed without a new mix of traditional and original compositions that not only confirmed the man's commitment, but also, in a way, served as a diary of his own musical (and, of course, SPIRITual) evolution. At first, they were produced in a very crude manner and distributed for fans on CDrs or something, but in 2012, all five EPs got officially packaged and numbered releases — and then were also put together in a single mammoth package, which also included an 80-page booklet that elaborately presented Sufjan's ideological stance on Christmas, plenty of artsy junk for the modern Christian's consumption, and a naked chocolate Santa having rough sex with a couple of chocolate reindeer (well, actually, no, this is still in the plans for future boxsets).

I am not even going to pretend to be capable of an honestly detailed and meticulous review here: 170 minutes of Christmas-related music is overkill even in the proper season, while tackling each of these EPs separately would create the illusion of being way more obsessed with Sufjan Stevens than I could possibly ever see myself becoming. However, I did listen to all of this from first to last track (not in one sitting, of course), and, once again, I confess to being more intrigued by Sufjan as a Christmas Philosopher than by Sufjan as a General Artist.

Most probably, he is not going to make himself a lot of new fans with these releases. His take on Christmas is virulently anti-traditional — Silver & Gold is even less acceptable as a Christmas utensil for your grandparents than Songs For Christmas; at the same time, all those people for whom Christmas is either nothing at all or merely a holiday, without any religious significance, will probably want to ignore an album so full of religious symbolism. In other words, Sufjan runs a heavier risk of «falling through the cracks» with this stuff than he does with his religious vibes on his usual records — clearly, he sees himself as one of those «modernizers of Christianity» whose life usually consists of endlessly getting torn apart by atheists, on one hand, and traditional conser­vative believers, on the other. This sort of dooms all of his Christmas-izing right from the start, and also finds me empathizing with the man more than I'd like to.

The project in total is very diverse. There is a lot of old-fashioned religious devotion on these discs, for sure, but also a lot of humor, a lot of irony, some carnivalesque irreverence, and, above all, a burning desire to not merely record another Christmas album, but do something challenging and, um, progressive. As the years go by, you can see that the sessions reflect Sufjan's current musical hobbies — by the time Christmas Infinity Voyage (2008) comes along, Sufjan is already deeply involved with electronic textures, turning standards like ʽDo You Hear What I Hear?ʼ into the same Animal Collective-influenced psycho-electronic rampages that would cul­minate in The Age Of Adz. And the very last track, ʽChristmas Unicornʼ, not only summarizes all of the internal contradictions and complexities of the Christmas ritual in its lyrics, but also weaves the chorus of Joy Division's ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ inside its lengthy coda — because that song, too, largely consisted of internal contradictions, and because who else other than Sufjan Stevens would think of merging the figures of Santa Claus and Ian Curtis?

That said, Sufjan Stevens cannot help being Sufjan Stevens, and for all the diversity, I find it hard as usual to comment on any of the individual songs — they mostly just sound nice, regardless of whether he is freaking out with electronic samples, playing pretty baroque piano, picking the banjo, or, very rarely, trying to rock out (ʽDing-A-Lingʼ has weird Marc Ribot-like screechy dissonant guitar all over it, making me suspect that Tom Waits might be lurking around the corner, but, alas, no dice). We could analyze the original lyrics — or we could just read the 80-page long booklet — to try and gain new insights into the nature and modern reinterpretations of Christmas, but I doubt that we could find anything truly illuminating; if there is one person out there who would walk away from these three hours of music with a forever changed perspective on how to spend his/her next holidays, I'd like to see that person. As for the music, well... it is always inventive, but the inventions are not necessarily meaningful.

If you have no time to spare for this project, or if you are simply not enough of a Sufjan Stevens fan, you can put together a pretty good idea of what it looks like by simply browsing through the song titles — you have your ʽSilent Nightʼ, but also your ʽHappy Karma Christmasʼ; your ʽWe Three Kingsʼ, but also ʽNo One Can Save You From Christmases Pastʼ; your ʽAve Mariaʼ, but also your ʽParticle Physicsʼ (!). This is enough, I think, to understand that the world at large will not be celebrating Christmas according to St. Sufjan any time soon; but, you know, at least he tried. To the best of my knowledge, however, no new Christmas-related material was released by Sufjan after 2012 — either he meant for ʽChristmas Unicornʼ to serve as a tie-up-all-loose-ends coda that puts a full stop to his Christmas canon, or he just burned out. In the latter case, as a man with a mission myself, I fully empathize with my brother-in-silliness from faraway Michigan — but this still does not mean that I will be adopting that canon any time soon.


  1. "clearly, he sees himself as one of those «modernizers of Christianity» whose life usually consists of endlessly getting torn apart by atheists, on one hand, and traditional conser­vative believers, on the other."

    I can't say I really see this at all, much less see it "clearly." Sufjan's approach to his faith has been pretty straightforward. He publicly identifies himself as a Christian and addresses his beliefs in his songs. Beyond that he hasn't really used his platform to say much of anything about Christianity, either as a proselytizer of "modernizer."

    If for some reason you think Sufjan's style of indiepop marks him as unusual in the world of Christian music you're way off base. Sufjan's friends/collaborators Danielson Famile, Soul-Junk, Half-Handed Cloud, and Welcome Wagon are all doing pretty similar stuff (and frankly are probably far more conservative than Sufjan in terms of theology).

    1. "Frankly are probably far more conservative than Sufjan in terms of theology" is precisely the thing that I am talking about. Sufjan Stevens (constantly) addresses his Christian beliefs in his songs in multiple non-traditional ways, such as would - theoretically - be more acceptable for the young people (and pop critics) of today. If my words have been misconstrued as accusing S.S. of proselytizing, I am not sure that this is my fault. "Modernizing" and "proselytizing" are absolutely not the same thing - although, from a certain illocutive perspective, any public statement of "I believe in Christ" has elements of inducement in it... but that is not the point of my statement, anyway.

  2. All these Christmas records used to be great supporting actors to the main LPs but Illinois seemed to suck all the creative juices from Sufjan and — let's try to be objective for a second here — he didn't release a proper coherent effort since then. Yet these Christmas albums kept on coming. To me they are like a wrap without a present. Not fun at all.

    1. No, really, the example of talented and creative Sufjan just begs for the question — what happened to all the hard-working culture of pop music? If Pete Townshend would follow the same path, we'd never see anything after 'Tommy'. Damn. Just lazy.