Songs for Christmas
et’s agree that there’s some sort of utility to be gained from musicians passing along public domain pieces. Nuts to that old “an artist must make a song theirs” adage; the more versions of “John the Revelator,” the better, right? The same goes for Christmas songs, which have been turned into great art by both Phil Spector and John Fahey. Anyone who knows a thing about Sufjan Stevens should realize that Christmas music fits him pretty well. “Little Drummer Boy?” “A Christmas Story?” These sorts of balmy, sentimental yarns are right in Stevens’ wheelhouse, making Songs for Christmas, a collection of five EPs released annually starting in 2001, a decidedly less preposterous idea than it might initially seem. Still, Sufjan has become a flaky character in his own right, and Songs for Christmas predictably oscillates between gentle folk readings of familiar tunes and gobs of bloated revelry.
We’ve all gotten so acquainted with Sufjan the Mad Bandleader that it’s easy to forget how sober and auburn he becomes with a banjo in his hands. Simple, splendid renditions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “We Three Kings,” and “Away in a Manger” provide the strongest argument for Sufjan as Relevant Folk Artist. The set’s true gem is a rendition of “The Friendly Beasts.” Sufjan was basically born to sing the donkey’s verse: “’I,’ said the donkey / Shaggy and brown / ‘I carried His mother / Uphill and down / I carried his mother to Bethlehem town / I’ said the donkey, shaggy and brown.” The hymns provide a theological heft that has all but disappeared from Sufjan’s recent work, and his music regains the refreshingly humble tone it’s lacked since Seven Swans.
Sufjan’s original work, which comprises slightly less than half of the material here, is more of a mixed bag. He leans on the goofy and joyous—“It’s Christmas Time, “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”—rather than the weighty or emotional, and while this means fewer sob stories, it also gives Songs for Christmas a trivial and tossed-off feel. This is a good thing? Mayhaps. Sufjan takes more chances with Songs for Christmas than he does on his last three LPs combined, from the punky guitar rush of “It’s Christmas Time” to the synth-aided “The Winter Solstice.” Anyone tired of Stevens layering 18 different xylophone parts (i.e. all of you) should find brief respite here.
Songs for Christmas provides an unintentional, de facto survey of his career progression. Things aren’t looking good. Where he used to fail endearingly (“It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”), he now fails in a blazing inferno of sterile production and formulaic melody (“Sister Winter”). The delicate disc five handling of “Holy Holy Holy” proves Sufjan hasn’t totally lost his shit, but the rest of the disc suggests that, indeed, shit has been misplaced.
The sheer amount of misfires makes Songs for Christmas impossible to recommend to anyone but the devoted Sufjanite. For the rest of us, it provides the clearest evidence yet that Sufjan has been overextending himself on cluttered compositions and up-tempo pop music, while his strength remains nervy balladry. Songs for Christmas reminds us of the goldmine that Christmas carols can be and makes a case for increased attention from popular musicians. Unfortunately, it also showcases why Sufjan has become such a divisive, occasionally ridiculed songwriter.