Review Summary: Sufjan Stevens provides an almost overwhelming collection of Christmas songs, but executes his compilation Songs For Christmas perfectly. Merry Christmas Spuntik.
Sufjan Steven’s had a plan. It consisted of fifty states and his lifetime to complete it. Well, it didn’t take long for his plans to change. After dealing with Michigan and Illinois, Sufjan’s next release not consisting of ‘outtakes,’ was his Christmas box set, appropriately titled Songs for Christmas.
With that, I must admit, Sufjan was dedicated to latest work and it showed. It contains not only five EPs, but it has goodies such as a sing-a-long/play-a-long book (featuring chords), a poster, stickers, two short stories by Sufjan Stevens, and more miscellaneous stories/comics. Adding to that, every item feels rather personal. When getting an album, you usually get a lyric booklet that doesn’t hold much value and that is about it. But this is something different. It is stuff like this when the artist is giving out little crap, like stickers, posters, and how to play the songs, that shows the link between artists and fans that should be made with every album. Is some of it unnecessary? To some extend, but is it something I’ll remember? Yes. After all, this is Sufjan Steven’s Christmas gift to all of us.
Songs for Christmas
contain the following five discs, in order of date recorded, oldest first: Noel, Hark!, Ding! Dong!, Joy, and finally Peace. With each disc, from Noel (the first disc) to Peace (the last disc), it is apparent how far Sufjan’s songwriting has come. Noel and Hark! have a personal and warm feeling attached. On the other hand, Peace contains some of his most dramatic and challenging pieces yet. Even so, the whole collection is well balanced and an excellent compilation of traditional and original Christmas tracks.
Noel: Volume I
The first of five discs, entitled Noel, sets the pace for the two-hour long Songs for Christmas.
As stated before, Sufjan incorporated classic traditional songs, all of which are redone with his own version of each song. Some are merely transposed for solely guitar or piano while others are written for a full band. Noel contains Yuletides such as “Silent Night,” which is played with three separate guitars, while “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Amazing Grace” are tunes both led by Sufjan’s recognizable banjo. But beyond the classics that are spread throughout the five discs, Sufjan’s original tracks are what make this collection brilliant. “We’re Goin’ to the Country,” sung by Matt Morris, has such a subtle coziness, a feeling people may be familiar with around this time. The song’s imagery is perfect, riddled with witty lyrics, ‘Find a tree and put it in your house/Put a mistletoe upon your mother’s blouse/If you see a woman dressed in black/give her up a song and then ask for it back.’ The cuteness continues “It’s Christmas! Let’s be Glad” with appropriate rhyme time like ‘since it’s Christmas, let’s be glad/Even if the year’s been bad/There are presents to be had/A promotion for your dad.’ As cheesy as it may be; it works well and sums up the atmosphere in Noel.
Hark!: Volume II
Songs for Christmas
is nowhere as grandiose as Come On Feel The Illinoise!
but there are tracks that show similarities. The recorder filled “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” can be related to “Put The Lights On The Tree” on the Hark! disc. Besides the fact that “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” is approximately five minutes shorter, “Put The Light On The Tree” is almost a carbon copy of the basic idea of “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders,” which is a piano-lead song that evolves into an onslaught of recorder (or recorder, flute, and trumpet in “The Tallest Man…”) notes. In fact, Sufjan did not try show off with his orchestra that he usually has in his pocket, even though there are enough instruments played in each song to suit an orchestra. Yet as always, sometimes being basic is better like in “Only At Christmas Time” where simple guitar strumming is accredited for the backbone of the song. Before Hark!’s end, “What Child Is This Anyway?” is similar to “The Seers Tower” with a droning feel that overlaps the songs presence. Moments like “What Child Is This Anyway?” are representative of the depressive tendencies during the holiday season. Finally, Hark! ends with the lo-fi “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” a peaceful ending to a relaxing disc.
Ding! Dong!: Volume III
Three of the most memorable tracks are found on the third volume, Ding! Dong!. One would be “Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance,” which is an upbeat story about Christmas Eve and the norms of the winter season. It features a portion where multiple voices are singing different lyrics at different times yet making it melodiously beautiful. “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” and “All the King's Horns” are two that could be compared to the traditional songs on the album with its indie-folk, banjo driven style. Ding! Dong! is interesting because it is almost like the bridge between Sufjan’s past style with his new and advancing style. I say this because it is the first disc I feel he takes full advantage of his knowledge of composing music. Sufjan does this by incorporating melodies and counter-melodies and making the musical landscape lush with sound. It all gives way for the following discs to thrive in their holiday glory.
Joy: Volume IV
Sufjan’s pinnacle songwriting is at work with the final two additions, Joy and Peace. Joy, the forth disc, begins with the over-praised “Little Drummer Boy.” Luckily, Sufjan redeems himself with his most rock influenced track yet, “It's Christmas Time!.” Even so, the song never strays away too far out of his indie-rock realm, but enough to catch your attention. On the other hand, “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” is a whimsical electronic-esque song that feels like the album is numb throughout. The song title seems compliments the emotional level sung and played during the song, which is a very lackadaisical, yet fitting mood. Lastly, the stunningly beautiful “Joy To The World” sets up Peace to steal the show.
Peace: Volume V
It is almost unfair how Peace contains most of the gems of this collection. This is largely in part because of Sufjan’s musical advancement. The piano piece, “Once In A Royal David's City,” calmly brings the disc to focus until a slide of a electric keyboard and horn assault begins “Get Behind Me, Santa!,” along a new chapter from this collection. In fact, it is the first time any sort of brass instrument is used from this point, which is surprising considering Sufjan’s usual arsenal. Beyond that, “Get Behind Me, Santa!” contains some of Sufjan’s most intriguing lyrics, like ‘Take it easy what you gotta be so absurd!/You make it sound like Christmas is a 4-letter word/It’s a fact of life whether you like it or not/So put your hands together and give it a shot!.’ At this point, it’s safe to say where Sufjan lies with the whole Christmas/Holiday season debacle. Anyway, a short piano reprise of “Jingle Bells” separates the last song from “Christmas in July,” the first song to feature any sort of string arrangement that blooms with a beautiful array of horns and violins chirping throughout.
“Jupiter Winter” and “Sister Winter” are easily the best two back-to-back songs, if not the two best songs on the album. “Jupiter Winter” beings with beats reminiscent of something Trent Reznor would arrange, but soon evolves into something more with rolling violin and horn parts. The dual vocal work of Sufjan Stevens and Marla Hansen for both songs is a harmoniously deadly combo. Both compliment one another equally well. Meanwhile, “Sister Winter” is almost in a league of its own. The song begins depressing, almost heartbroken with a droning piano sneaking along behind violins. Shortly, guitars slyly chime in as the lyrics are repeated again and again as momentum builds. Soon the snare drum establishes the beat as it crescendos with each piano key stroke until a burst of…well, Christmas. All of the spirited music and arrangements can be released in the ball of energy that feels so magical and surreal at times, that it can make someone look around to making sure they are grasping reality.
Unfortunately, what I would have considered a perfect ending to an enormous EP is not over. While the remaining tracks are good, “Sister Winter” is simply the apex of every arrangement and original song played previously. Luckily, it is just a hint that Sufjan Stevens is increasing his talent with what he does with music, and it is pretty incredible to see the improvement from disc to disc. While the third-coming of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (yes third time within this five discs), electro-indie rock “Star of Wonder,” and swirling instrumental arrangement “The Winter Solstice” all hold their ground, it just felt like it was just bad placement.
It feels like an eternity has passed, and I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with Songs For Christmas.
To be honest, while tradition is important when compiling a Christmas album, there is a point at which it becomes overwhelming. Seventeen out of forty-two tracks are original, and to be honest, if Sufjan was not so hung up in tradition, it would have been an even better album. The original tracks show his composition skills and ability to adapt to a central theme such as Christmas. Yet I do realize it is essential to keep something like Christmas still breathing with the tracks that are synonymous with it. While Sufjan may have not brought joy to the world with this collection, he gave joy to music fans and Christmas advocates alike. Still I feel Sufjan’s message is a bigger message, which is stop looking at the holiday as a religious burden, but more as a festival of life, love, and joy. All that is left to say is, Merry Christmas everyone.