For hipsters and Indie-listeners everywhere (and other people too complicated to be labeled), the question is heavy in the Yuletide air: What the heck is going on in Sufjan’s massive new Christmas album? Heads still ringing from Age of Adz, many fans almost want to give up hope on their favorite banjo-strumming story-teller of the more simple times… before handlebar mustaches were cool again.
Well, friend, I feel your pain. Mostly in my ears. For the first two weeks of listening to the album, I hated it. I thought Sufjan had succumbed to the fate of many who receive sudden acclaim: his pride swelled, his standard became himself, and his music sucked forevermore. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, but instead it’s Sufjan’s new disjointed guitar solos and miserably performed home recordings of songs too stupid to use words to describe.
But before you cry “Get off the stage!” too loudly, let me share some insights.
It’s Christmas … All of It
First of all, these songs didn’t get cranked out in an assembly line Sufjan Chritsmas music machine. Sufjan Stevens released his first Christmas compilation album, Songs for Christmas, in 2006, which pulled exhaustively from music made in the lustrum of 2001 to 2006, with a disk dedicated to each year of Sufjan’s Christmas compositions. That said, Silver & Gold is merely the following installment of a ten-years-and-possibly-rolling Stevens tradition. This explains not only the sheer volume of the album, but also the vast variety of musical styles, lyrical messages, and production qualities.
It is this wide range of music that makes it so hard to succinctly review Silver & Gold. On the one hand, many hymns (How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?, Lift Up Your Heads Your Mighty Gates, Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light, Christ The Lord is Born) are sung in a more traditional, living-room choral style. It harkens to families who hold the music and theology of Christmas in equally high regard. But even these serious hymns have a half-handed spirit in both their performance and production. The tracks are noisy, sloppy, and there’s a vibrato in there that can match any overzealous seventy-year-old Baptist choirwoman. It leaves thoughtful listeners wondering if he is trying to parody the pious tradition of serious Christmas-time hymns or if he is simply trying to capture the actual reality of such traditions.
These hymns are interspersed among ridiculously absurd, annoyingly amateur, downright awful songs (We wish you a merry Christmas, Mr. Frosty Man, I Am Santa’s Helper). The song Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling epitomizes Sufjan’s vapid approach to many cultural Christmas songs and themes (arguably vapid themselves). 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.
But It’s Still Sufjan
However, rising above the commotion of lackadaisically sung hymns and garage-band madness, Sufjan presents a handful of amazing originals. The most notable of which are the last two songs of the 59-song album. The second-to-last song of the album, Justice Delivers Its Death, draws on the theme found in the song Silver & Gold. Sufjan’s take on this classic song is hauntingly beautiful as he confronts our desire for earthly treasures and the quickly approaching death that will prove wealth’s worthlessness.
There is no scene more fit for such critique than our yearly reinvention of past pagan heresy. Christmas reeks of our supposition that silver and gold makes us happy, especially if it’s wrapped up all pretty-like. Sufjan wrote and recorded every song as an exploration of the spectrum of Christmas experience, many of which experiences are often annoying. Christmas has snowballed into a cultural phenomenon that packs an odd mixture of the divine and profane—holy songs and base ditties, gospel truth and generational deception, harmonious beauty and talent show foibles. We see truth and the Gospel annually taken advantage of—used as a means to get together and just have a bangin’ good time.
Weaving this paradoxical theme in the content of four and a half disks, Sufjan cries out, “Lord, come with fire! Everyone’s wasting their time.” In Justice Delivers Its Death, Sufjan shows he is just as annoyed with the frivolity and flippancy as we are.
What’s the Point of All This?
This gavel-crash is followed only by the song Christmas Unicorn, which is the culmination of all the styles, tensions, and ideals that were explored in the lengthy album.
Until this point, the listener has been lost in an amalgam of satirical ridiculousness and serious struggle. But now, in one song, Stevens personifies Christmas’ shortfalls—unhindered silliness, the misguided view of self, the commercialization, the conjured fantasy, the empty tradition, the depression, the paradoxical existence, the sin—in the Christmas Unicorn. This “mythical mess” is a unique and seemingly hopeless (and thus, endearing) character.
But then… 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, we dress ourselves up, because we’re selfish, and we’re sinful, and we’re as much a hopeless mess as Christmas is. Furthermore, 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!”
The song stops sounding like it is going to end. The new theme of love swells as the music crescendos into a musical apparition only Sufjan 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 will refine us, tearing us from our unwanted, worse selves? Is it God’s love that makes it all “all right”? Or is it our love for each other—mankind’s love—that makes it alright and that tears us apart? It’s probably both. It is, after all, Christmas. Peace on earth and goodwill to men, because of the Christ.
Unfreakingbelievable. Sufjan is a mastermind.
If you approach this album like a traditional album (like I initially did), you will get frustrated (like I initially was). 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 Sufjan Stevens musically explores every facet of Christmas, how he condemns the foolishness therein, and how he encourages truth, beauty, and being refined in the fire, like silver and gold.