By Anna Kat Thomas
For hipsters and Indie-listeners everywhere, the question is heavy in the Yuletide air: What is going on in the huge new Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album?
Stevens released his first Christmas compilation album, “Songs for Christmas,” in 2006. Obviously thinking the first five discs of music was lacking, a few weeks ago he released another five disks of music for the yuletide, “Silver & Gold.” We should take note that both “Songs for Christmas” and “Silver & Gold” are collections of songs that he has been recording each year since 2001. This explains the sheer volume of the album, the vast variety of musical styles, lyrical messages and production qualities. It is because of this wide range of music that it is so hard to succinctly review the songs found in “Silver & Gold.”
Many hymns (“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” and “Lift Up Your Heads You Mighty Gates”) are sung in a more traditional living-room choral style. But even these “serious” hymns have a half-handed spirit in both their performance and production.
These hymns are interspersed among absurd, annoyingly amateur, downright awful songs (“We wish you a Merry Christmas” and “Mr. Frosty Man”). Practically unlistenable, these songs are surely meant to poke fun at unrefined Christmas traditions, quirkily conjured characters, and certainly the commercialization that has wreaked havoc on the entire nativity scene.
However, rising above the commotion and madness, Stevens presents a handful of amazing originals. Inspired by the song “Silver and Gold,” “Justice Delivers Its Death” is a hauntingly beautiful song about the distraction of earthly treasures and the quickly approaching death that will prove wealth’s worthlessness. Christmas reeks of our supposition that silver and gold make us happy, especially if it’s all wrapped up all pretty-like. We see truth and the Gospel annually taken advantage of—used as a means to get together and just have a good time. Confronted with this hypocrisy, Stevens cries out “Lord, come with fire,” because “everyone’s wasting their time.”
“Justice Delivers Its Death” is followed by “Christmas Unicorn,” which is the culmination of all the styles, tensions and ideals that were explored in this lengthy album. Until this point, the listener has been lost in a conglomeration of satirical ridiculousness and serious exploration. But now, Stevens personifies Christmas’s shortfalls—unhindered silliness, the misguided view of self, the commercialization, the conjured fantasy, the empty tradition, the depression and the sin—in the “Christmas Unicorn.” This “mythical mess” is a seemingly hopeless (and thus, endearing) character that is one of a kind.
This, however, is the twist that makes the entire album worth the sometimes very painful wait: I’m the Christmas Unicorn. And you’re the Christmas unicorn. We have misguided notions about ourselves, and we’re as much a hopeless mess as Christmas is. But there’s really not much we can do about it: “You may dress in the human uniform, child, but I know you’re just like me.”
On this hopeless line, the song and the album seem to come to a close. The song sadly repeats, “I’m the Christmas Unicorn. You’re the Christmas Unicorn too.” But suddenly, behind this reprise, you hear the line “It’s alright, I love you!”
Suddenly, the song stops sounding like it is going to end. The new theme of love swells as the music crescendos into a musical concoction only Stevens can conjure. Synth beats undergird electronic melodies intricately woven with the chorus vocals as the song crashes out with the chorus, “Love! Love will tear us apart, my friend!” Is it God’s love that will tear us apart? Is it God’s love that makes it all “alright”? Or is it mankind’s love that makes it alright—that tears us apart? It’s probably both. It is, after all, Christmas. Peace on earth and goodwill to men, because of the Christ.
Sufjan is a mastermind.
If you approach this album like a traditional album, you will get frustrated. There’s too much stupid music and lame recording to wade through if you want a good Christmas playlist. But if you approach this Christmas music compilation like the concept album it is, you will be impressed with the way Stevens musically explores every facet of Christmas, how he condemns the harm and encourages truth and beauty.