(Asthmatic Kitty) Sufjan Stevens is a hard one to figure out. He's made a career of delicate, elegantly-orchestrated hymns to life and longing. He's an ostensibly Christian songwriter who doesn't shy from an almost-Pagan fascination with the natural world and the strange little corners of existence. Albums like Seven Swans make multiple Biblical allusions, but Enjoy Your Rabbit! is based on the Chinese Zodiac, and his collaborative project Planetarium is about the planets of the solar system. In 2006, he released the five-CD box-set Songs for Christmas, composed of material he'd been recording since 2001 and giving to friends and family at Christmas-time. His new collection Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10 completes the cycle.
The original Songs for Christmas contained forty-two tracks – some originals, some standards. Silver & Gold takes the same approach with its fifty-eight tracks, rounding out the total number of Sufjan Stevens Christmas songs to one hundred. Recording one hundred songs is no small feat, and Stevens' dedication is impressive. He claims he never intended to finish the 50-states project – releasing only Sufjan Stevens Presents... Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State and Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise – so we may have to content ourselves with this collection if we want to see one of his massive projects come to fruition.
Stevens is a highly skilled musician – not to mention a master of orchestration and production – so it's no surprise that the songs themselves are beautiful. His weird, extraterrestrial style is in full effect, as evidenced by the singing saw on “Coventry Carol” and the glitchy electronic madness of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” His stated goal for the project was “to make himself 'appreciate' Christmas more,” and this album has the potential to do exactly that for the listener. Hearing traditional holiday songs in new, odd arrangements draws the mind to both the inherent artistic value of the songs themselves and the strange power that the midwinter festival holds for believers and non-believers alike.
Then there are the original songs, which are rather delightful. “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past” is a joyfully tongue-in-cheek ode that declares: “The drinking makes it easy / the music's kinda cheesy,” adding a layer of mocking self-awareness to the entire affair. Some tracks – like the two-minute “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way” – are majestic, swelling instrumentals ; some – like the fifteen-minute “The Child With the Star On His Head” are bizarre, wandering ballads filled with lazy country guitar and drunken mariachi horns.
Stevens has a knack for doing the unexpected, both in terms of the projects he chooses and the individual choices he makes from measure to measure in a song. Just listen to the dirgey bossanova synth-soul of “Up On the Housetop” and you'll understand. The five EPs of Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10 offer a wealth of surprising moments for lovers of sonic innovation; however,they'll also remind you why you love these well-worn songs in the first place. You'll find yourself wanting to listen to them with genuine holiday spirit. Christmas music is an entirely sublime and spooky realm of frozen rapture that glows like an alien starship embedded in a frozen lake, and Sufjan Stevens may be just the man to bottle that mysterious, jubilant feeling.
Standout Tracks: “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past”, “The Child With the Star On His Head”, “Coventry Carol”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “Up On the Housetop”
For Fans Of: AM, Bahamas