It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and I’ve already listened to 100 Christmas songs — all by Sufjan Stevens. To some this may sound great. To far more, this may sound tortuous. And to think, for a time there, I wasn’t totally sure we’d get more songs from Sufjan Stevens.
Back when Stevens released his Illinois album in 2005, I, like many, geekily hoped he would make good on his plan to do a record for each of the 50 states. It was fun to imagine what state might be next to get the Sufjan treatment (“Maybe it’ll be Kansas next!,” I may have actually thought). But deep down, I think we all scratched our heads over how such an ambitious project would even be logistically possible.
It wasn’t. Stevens more or less dropped out of the scene after that, worked on his cinematic symphonic work, The BQE, and pondered out loud that he wasn’t so sure he wanted to write “songs” anymore. Stevens eventually did resurface obviously with 2010’s EP, All Delighted People and its immediate follow-up, the radical and majestic masterpiece Age Of Adz, but not before quashing any remaining hope of another states album, admitting that the whole idea was just a “promotional gimmick.”
So while the Fifty States Project never actually materialized, Stevens was indeed busy in those five years. It turns out, he’d been quietly plugging away at writing and recording more Christmas songs. A lot of them.
As you might recall, Stevens first released 2006’s Songs For Christmas, a sprawling 42-song, 5-disc set of Christmas-themed EPs, initially created for his family and friends each year from 2001-2005. Mixing gorgeous original works with re-arranged Christian traditionals — like his stunning banjo and piano rendition of “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” — that idiosyncratic and fun treasure trove rejuvenated a somewhat tired Christmas canon with vibrancy, spiritual reverence, and conflicted feelings about the over-commercialization of the holiday.
Now, six years later, Sufjan Stevens has unloaded Silver & Gold, a whopping 58-song follow-up recorded between 2006 to 2010. For those that purchased this new box set, the collection contains a huge 80-page booklet, stickers and temporary tattoos, and one of those fold-it-yourself paper ornaments. Oh yeah, and five discs of original songs and faithful and odd interpretations of traditional holiday fare that rolls through a variety of styles: choral pieces, ramshackle jingles, instrumental interludes, weirdo genre exercises and under-developed sketches.
Each disc is more or less split up thematically, and each has its own distinct personality. The first and fourth EPs, Gloria and Let It Snow, feel the most traditional, with the biggest concentration of straight ahead buoyant takes on familiar jingles and carols. But each successive entry — I Am Santa’s Helper, Christmas Infinity Voyage, and Christmas Unicorn — begins to experiment in form and texture, while also looking inward, grappling with what’s important about Christmas.
Perhaps the most interesting and bizarre set is the third EP, Christmas Infinity Voyage, which incorporates the newfound glitched-out 8-bit synths and Auto-tuned vocals Stevens has developed recently. On Christmas standards we’ve heard for years, like “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” or “Joy To The World,” it remarkably works, as bits of noise, static and otherworldly computerized cacophony begin to creep into the corners, only to climax with a reprise the jubilent chorus of “Impossible Soul” from Adz.
And some of the best entries are those that throw away the basic structure, sliding into expansive electronic jams, such as the 15-minute epic “The Child With The Star On His Head” or “Christmas Unicorn,” which peaks with a repeated chant of Joy Divisions “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
In all Silver & Gold is yet another really excellent addition to Stevens’ ever-ballooning Christmas catalog, even if it might not be the most satisfying listen if you set out to play each EP straight through. I Am Santa’s Helper, in particular, has the most inconsistent or undeveloped ideas. Ultimately that’s also the nature of such a project: Even if it doesn’t all succeed, I’m glad someone like Stevens is out there trying and experimenting. Still, buried within these five volumes are plenty of pieces — both playfully heartwarming and dark– that will easily sit alongside your favorite Christmas songs, if not your favorite Sufjan songs.
For an unpredictable artist always searching for something grand, and aspiring to high concept ideas, Sufjan Stevens’ imaginative musical world is, at his best, powerful, moving, and always worth visiting. Here’s hoping there’s more songs to come.
With so much to hear and wrap your mind around, it’s easy to miss out on some of the gems of Silver & Gold. Hear six more of my favorite highlights from the album.
1) “Baracola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree)” (Disc one, track 7)
A melancholy ballad that builds to a cathartic chorus of voices as emotionally satisfying and lovely as anything on this collection.
2) “Mr. Frosty Man” (Disc two, track 13)
A fun, rough and tumble garage-rock banger, all blown speaker fuzz and feedback, it’s as if the Seeds or Velvet Underground decided to sing about about a super-cool bossy snowman.
3) “Angels We Have Heard On High” (Disc three, track 1)
A traditional call-and-response Christmas carol, reworked with new lyrics from Stevens that reference flying saucers and feeling lost amidst the commotion of the holiday, all while tiny bursts of feedback swell underneath the autoharp, banjo and angelic voices.
4) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (Disc three, track 2)
One of the most inventive re-envisioned songs, this 9-minute, multi-part piece brings in the serrated computer beats, Casio-synth sounds and vocoder, allowing it to easily reside in the middle of Steven’s Age Of Adz universe.
5) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow” (Disc four, track 7)
A holiday favorite of mine, given a complete re-harmonization, turning this joyful winter tune into a haunting and enrapturing minor-key lament.
6) “Justice Delivers Its Death” (Disc five, track 8)
With the lines “Silver and gold, everyone wishes for it / How do you measure its worth, just by the pleasure it gives here on Earth?” Sufjan’s ponders his place in a world that values wealth and youth in one of the most beautiful songs he’s written in years.