Sufjan Stevens- Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10

Cathal Prendergast
Posted November 28, 2012 in Music Reviews

BIMM may-june 22 – Desktop

Following on from 2006’s expansive Songs for Christmas collection, Silver and Gold is Sufjan’s second soundtrack to your Christmastide. If there’s one thing that the ambitious and long-considered abandoned 50 states project taught us, it’s that Sufjan has a penchant for themes, or at the very least is somewhat inspired by them. At times on this box set, it feels like he could make only holiday-themed tunes for the rest of his career and not think anything derivative of it. Thank Baby Jesus then that he has limited this compilation to five EP’s that together clock in at a paltry three hours. Running the gamut from impulsive and celestial to a sheer unrestrained veneration of Christmas; the collection embraces Sufjanian familiarity, going further than The Age of Adz, but its indulgent elaborations of old songs can often feel pedestrian when the original melody is stuck by too closely and overly hedonistic otherwise.

Sufjan is helped out by the Dessner brothers of The National fame on opening EP Gloria: Vol. VI. It’s a million miles away from their usual brooding fare, but immediately apparent that these aren’t songs about Christmas, they are Christmas songs by their very nature. For original compositions, Sufjan takes his usual power-in-numbers big band and adds a choral element, giving the EP a Den of Winter feel throughout. Elsewhere, arrangements of songs of old including a version of Silent Night and a stab at Carol of the Bells- probably the most instantly recognizable Christmas jam (thanks in part to a pre-heroin chic Macauly Culkin’s hi-jinks in Home Alone) – get the full Sufjan treatment, with butter-smooth vocals and delicate Spanish guitar intricacies. Original Barcacarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree) is the first inherently Sufjanian track on the record, with a well-synched live feel and a playfully airy lyrical theme, while a banjo led folk arrangement of Auld Lang Syne unfortunately recalls the embarrassment felt when your tipsy parents forced you to join hands and sing with awkward neighbours at the annual New Year’s Eve party as a child.

I Am Santa’s Helper: Vol. VII splices dark European classical music with impromptu holiday jams; grave Bach and Schop compositions flanking a jovial jam band mentality with lyrical refrains of “You are Santa’s slave” and “Baby Jesus is the king-a-ling-a-ling”. A grunge take on Jingle Bells does not sit well with the over-the-top pomp of a sing-along fascination and it becomes starkly clear that both styles won’t gel. At nearly an hour, this volume long outstays its welcome, but there are fleeting delights to be had. On Behold! Sufjan displays an effortless virtuosity (he could easily be a world-renowned pianist if he chose to take that route) and Mr. Frosty Man conjures an image of a stoned Velvet Underground playing Yuletide hits around the fire; the title character morphing into something of a holiday themed ‘Man in Black’ from Waiting For The Man.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDDAybCe1uI?rel=0]

By far the most outlandish of the collection, Christmas Infinity Voyage: Vol. VIII is somewhat ambitious in its assumptions but offers a brief respite from all the overbearing wholesomeness. Cover art depicting a Gundam-style character, doses of space-age instrumentation and religious lyrical themes all mould into the soundtrack of a Christmas odyssey harking back to the experimentation of Adz. Do You Hear What I Hear is a cosmic-synthesiser take on the sixties hit, complete with Daft Punk-esque vocals and sporadic drum samples. At nine minutes long, the track is far too self-indulgent but at least Sufjan can still set himself challenges and overcome them with aplomb. The transitory Alphabet Street provides a space-funk crack at the Prince hit; the only connection to Christmas being a poke at His Majesty’s Christian ethics (Though Prince is eternally young, not unlike a certain JC). The EP finally finds its feet on closer The Child With The Star On His Head, offering a lull from the interstellar lunacy with a progressive casiotone melody and deeply felt storytelling. It’s all about positive Christmas energy, man.

With only one original composition, Let It Snow: Vol. IX is the most overtly Christmassy assemblage of the collection, and probably the one least likely to offend your nan. Sufjan takes on I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and Sleigh Ride, among others, and retains his genuine passion for the holiday season, breathing ingenuity into songs that are now almost redundant and disposable. The dance pop sample heavy X-mas Spirit Catcher preserves the salubrious vibe of the volume, while Cat Martino lays down a delicate vocal for Ave Maria.

The final EP Christmas Unicorn: Vol. X blends everything heard previously; it’s an amalgamation of sounds with occasional bursts of cosmic indulgence. Sufjan melds traditional French carols and twee indie folk with the chiptune-led meditation on predestination of Happy Karma Christmas. Becoming something of a Blue Christmas, the volumes latter half takes a dark turn with the ethereal ballad Justice Delivers Its Death, a scathing critique of Christmas capitalism, while Christmas Unicorn sees Sufjan at his most lyrically unrestrained, placing tongue firmly in cheek as the unicorn of the title; “I’m a hysterically American horse with a fantasy twist”. A fitting crescendo to the box set, the track encapsulates Sufjanian appeal and could easily have appeared on Illinois or Michican without argument. A Love Will Tear Us Apart sample raises the collection above what it might be worth; a family forced together for Christmas will argue without fail, but there’s an undertone of hope present.

With ten volumes in total, it’s possible Sufjan has milked the Christmas theme for all its worth, and he never quite reaches the heavenly highs he sets out for, but it’s still better than giving Slade and Chris de Burgh any more royalties.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_cPQn6vOdo?rel=0]

 

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