Unwrapping Sufjan’s Christmas Gift

Patrick Rapa

By Patrick Rapa

on 11.09.12 in Spotlights

Brooklyn indie darling Sufjan Stevens will probably never finish his one-album-for-every-state project (48 to go!), but his holiday-music series seems unstoppable. By now, you should know the drill: Every year he gathers some musical friends and stitches together an EP to send out to loved ones. Some of the songs are standards, lovingly rendered. Some are standards, flipped into rock songs or spooky ballads. A lot of Stevens’s holiday tunes are originals, either sincere in their cheer or absurd, moody or baffling. (“Christmas Unicorn” is all of these.) Stevens’s last five holiday EPs are finally collected in the new Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas Vols. 6-10, a collection that’s as upbeat and earnest as it is completely bonkers. Below, a rigorously scientific breakdown of the highlights of each volume, broken into statistical categories.

Title: Volume VI – Gloria
Total tracks: Eight
Standout track: “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past.” This indie-pop/Appalachian hybrid makes smart use of a wandering fiddle and one of the least annoying “ho ho ho” chants in music history.
See also: Stevens prides himself on diverging from classical Christmas carols, but the version of “Silent Night” that kicks off this collection is spookily, churchily old-school. Is that a choir of angels or cartoon ghosts backing him up? Voices waver and a singing saw warbles as Stevens pays proper homage to the original reason for the season. His take on of “Coventry Carol” also stays true to its earnest, 16th-century origins. And then there are tracks like “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One” which starts out with an acoustic/pointillist take on “Carol of the Bells” before morphing into a folksy, uplifting original. And let’s face it, that song needed a morphing.
Sample lyric: “You, you must be a Christmas tree, a Christmas tree/ You light up the room,” from “Barcarola,” a real heartbreaker.
Good-Cheer-o-Meter: 7/10. Parental units will allow this to be played during the consumption of food and the exchange of benefactions.
Sacrilege rating: 1/10. Get behind me, Santa.
Preciousness gauge: 5/10. Totes adorbs, but not douchey about it.

Title: Volume VII – I Am Santa’s Helper!
Total tracks: 23
Standout track: “Christmas Woman” is a zig-zagging rock tune that mixes jingling bells and skronking guitars, heavenly voices and peppy synths, dissonance and euphoria. Nice shout-out to the pagans in this one, too.
See also: A lot of bang for your buck here: Some Bach, three versions of “Ah Holy Jesus” (regular, a cappella, extra reed-organy), and some crazypants song titles that only look like Tolkien references: “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” “Mysteries of the Christmas Mist” and so on. Lively numbers like “Mr. Frosty Man” (an alternate-universe Daniel Johnston gem) define this volume, but don’t sleep on the warm and fuzzy instrumentals, including traditional Jewish hymn “Maoz Tzur” (sounds like a school piano recital) or the ethereal original “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way” (they have Christmas on Saturn, right?).
Sample lyric: “Baby Jesus is the king/ Jesus is the king-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling.” That’s from “Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling,” a completely nutballs sing-along that embraces the spiked-eggnog silliness of the season. You can’t pull these sorts of shenanigans around Easter.
Good-Cheer-o-Meter: 9/10. Mazel Tov!
Sacrilege rating: 3/10. Nobody’s going to Hell for this, but you won’t hear it at midnight mass, either.
Preciousness gauge: 3/10. Charming and mysterious. More Dancer than Prancer.

Title: Volume VIII – Christmas Infinity Voyage
Total tracks: Nine
Standout track: Usually, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is the black hole of the Xmas mall playlist: grim, inescapable, joyless, endless. Which is what makes Sufjan’s version – souped up with glitchy beats and robo-vocals – so brilliant. Once you accept the song as a self-perpetuating and godlessly sentient machine, well, it’s kinda fun again. Of course, our artificially intelligent narrator keeps wondering if we feel what it feels – all of creation is new to it.
See also: The retro-futuristic take on “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” is mostly instrumental (just a brief Cylon speaking part at the end). “Particle Physics” sounds like a Dot Matrix printer trying to order itself more toner. “Good King Wenceslas” is full of alto angels and laser effects. Skrillex is so jelly right now.
Sample lyric: “No traffic jams/ No ice and storm/ Far in the house the fire is warm.” “Christmas in the Room” is a blissful and occasionally wayward anti-carol that dreams of a winter’s night spent snuggling up in front of the TV. (Just a heads up: Stevens was kind of understating the nature of fire. It is actually very, very hot.)
Good-Cheer-o-Meter: 6/10. This EP is exactly the sort of daring holiday highwire act we expect from Stevens. Older relatives will not approve. (Here’s where I remind you that Christmas is one of those things one might be accused of “ruining.”)
Sacrilege rating: 5/10. The “Angels We Have Heard on High” rewrite gives a shout-out to flying saucers, an offense specifically verboten by Vatican II.
Preciousness gauge: 1/10. Nothing too cutesy here.

Title: Volume IX – Let it Snow!
Total tracks: Nine
Standout track: Brooklyn indie-folkie Cat Martino, usually up in the clouds with the rest of Stevens’s angelic choir, swings low to sing the lead on a couple quietly fetching songs. “Ave Maria” is spellbindingly spacey while “The Sleigh in the Moon,” a Martino original, is utterly divine and peaceful. We should send her to the front lines of every war to sing this song. Later we can name a rec center after her or something.
See also: “X-Mas Spirit Catcher” is a wonderfully idiosyncratic pop number that spices Stevens’s smooth voice with spacious reverb. This volume also finds room for a few respectfully rearranged classics like “Let it Snow!” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” to warm your heart and soften your nips.
Sample lyric: I’m not quite sure what guest singer/songwriter Sebastian Krueger means by “your holly hair and tinsel eyes” (on the final track, “Christmas Face”) but it’s wicked pretty. He’s making a golem out of old ornaments, maybe.
Good-Cheer-o-Meter: 9/10. This one’s lovely, light and deep.
Sacrilege rating: 2/10. Upping the moodiness on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is only a venial sin. Let’s go wallowing through the snow!
Preciousness gauge: 4/10. Gutwrenching sincerity cut with pangs Glee-ful buoyancy.

Title: Volume X – Christmas Unicorn
Total tracks: Nine
Standout track: This volume takes its title from Silver & Gold‘s most unflinchingly weird song. “Christmas Unicorn” is insane. It’s mesmerizing. It’s 13 minutes long and narrated by a mournful (and a bit deranged) mythical creature. What begins as a gentle lamentation evolves into a grand sing-along epic in the vein of Song of Roland or Snaildartha: The Story of Jerry the Christmas Snail. Strains of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are mixed into some lush orchestral maneuvers, piling on the drama as we pick up steam. This unicorn has some grievances, man.
See also: The melancholic and minimalist “Happy Karma Christmas,” which delivers a real punch in the nuts of your soul. Similarly spooky is “Justice Delivers Its Death,” which summons the Lord’s wrath over acoustic pointillism. Good to see the vengeful Old Testament God get a walk-on.
Sample lyric: Gotta go back to the title track for this one: “Oh I’m a mystical apostasy/ I’m a horse with a fantasy twist/ Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.”
Good-Cheer-o-Meter: 5/10. Sometimes Rudolph’s nose is a blacklight.
Sacrilege rating: 6.66/10. The false idols were hung by the chimney with care.
Preciousness gauge: 6/10. Unicorn mentions automatically set off the presh-o-meter.