Review Summary: Sufjan Stevens creates the modern Christmas masterpiece our generation has been waiting for.
Sufjan Stevens is a beautiful, functioning paradox. His massive gimmick in the "50 states" series gave us the inventive, fresh, and encapsulating sounds of Michigan
. His mental breakdown and near self-removal from music gave us the darker, introspective electronic sounds of The Age of Adz
and one of his greatest achievements to date in the sprawling, tone and style shifting "Impossible Soul." And now, his seeming attack on the way we all perceive and attempt to relive the commercial holiday of Christmas has produced one of the greatest holiday collections of all time in Silver & Gold
. Yes, from the traditional to the original and everywhere in-between, Sufjan has managed to hit the nail right on the head straight through to track 58.
And part of that paradoxical success on Silver & Gold
comes from the fact that, though Sufjan has been vocal about his displeasure with the Christmas shop-first attitude, the music shades things in a subtler way. Can it be said that the re-timed, banjo bop of "The Midnight Clear," one of the easiest examples of Sufjan's hybrid approach to mixing the traditional with his own well-established style, is a jab at the tune or its longstanding fanbase? Probably not. Can the bizarrely catchy bells, trashcan drums, out-of-tune fuzz guitar, and childish singing of "Baby Jesus is the king, king-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling" on "Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling" be mounting an anti-commercial, possibly even anti-church front? Possibly. Are the slightly-less-psychedelically-inspired-than-Lewis-Carroll's-"Jabberwocky" lyrics to "Christmas Unicorn" an all-out assault on everything supposedly improper that we hold dear at this time of year? Absolutely. And its music is an assault on everything you expect out of Sufjan Stevens
, not unlike its predecessor in prolificity and scope (and sound), "Impossible Soul." Yet, take the bitterness and sarcasm where you will, there is still passion and joy in all 2.7 hours of Silver & Gold
, and when matched with the top-notch songwriting Sufjan Stevens seems to knock out in his sleep, all of the ingredients seem to mix into that paradoxical Christmas morning wonder many of us still feel years after we learned the truth about Santa Claus.
And, for the most part, these tracks are emblematic of what you're going to get out of Silver & Gold
. Traditionals and old favorites with an indie-pop twist of banjos or bells, whistles, and bloops throughout the album, as any fan of Stevens would expect. Piano, harp, and orchestral interludes are scattered here and there, much like on Illinois
, providing a sense of intermission and functioning as a palate cleanser. There are a few more restrained and simplistic traditionals (mostly found on Gloria
), which serve as a nod to predecessors who have tackled the ever-commercially successful Christmas cover. And, of course, the album is chock-full of original tunes carried out in the same sort of indie-pop vein we've heard from Sufjan up through Illinois
... until the all-out electronic approach of Infinity Voyage
's "Do You Hear What I Hear?" from synthetic keys and drums to processed, robotic vocals. From that point on, the whole of Infinity Voyage
and selections of the collection thereafter cue off of an Age of Adz
array of electronics from full immersion (borrowing directly from "Impossible Soul" on "Joy to the World") to a mere toe in the water ("The Child With the Star on His Head").
In the end, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens is that in his attack on Christmas and our expectations of it, he has somehow rekindled our sense of holiday cheer. Re-imagining the Christmas canon and adding to it in a way that is sure to live on in the hearts of a younger generation that never really got a Christmas special to call its own, Sufjan has managed to take that which he found imperfect and undesirable and tinker with it until it became what he wanted it to be. By putting together those elements of tradition and modern commercialism he has embodied the Christmas paradox musically and, in some ways, shown us just how that crossroads of the old and new has made his sound the intelligent, well-crafted, and simply enjoyable
thing that it is. So, maybe he's still disenfranchised with the holiday, but he's certainly given the rest of us something to enjoy this Christmas season, and many more to come. And if you ask me, that's what it's really all about.