Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas Volumes 6-10
Christmas in America is a bit of an enigma when you think about it: you have a holiday originally characterized by the birth of Christ and a spirit of hope and unity in the world, but to this day, the holiday has become a bit complicated. It’s a time of giving and family, but it is also a time of unbelievable consumerism, lavish decorations, stress and arguments, not to mention a big-bearded man with a red coat slipping down our chimneys. Another enigma is Sufjan Stevens, a self-pronounced Christian who speaks about matters of the faith but not at all in the ways that most contemporary Christian artists do. Sufjan has a flair for hyper-literate and bizarre storytelling, complex and daring orchestration, and ambition out the wazoo. This is a guy who said he wanted to release an album about every state to only a few years later retract the statement saying that he didn’t believe in the album or song form anymore. He has produced over 10 volumes and nearly 100 songs of Christmas music, wrote and directed a ballet, and has created everything from stripped-down folk albums to groundbreaking electro-pop. So it sort of makes sense that these two enigmas come together, and they do to mostly stunning results on Silver & Gold, volumes 6-10 of Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas.
Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas, the first 5 volumes of Christmas music released together in 2006 amidst his States project, was more stripped-down folk of classic Christmas Carols with some added Sufjan characteristics – sweeping orchestration and Eastern-influenced melodies – plus a few quality and a few not-so-quality Christmas originals from Sufjan. This new collection finds Sufjan at a very different stage of his career, where the Michigander has now explored a variety of music styles and themes and finds himself at a more expressive point in his career. As such, the various volumes each contain different themes showcasing different aspects of the Sufjan kaleidoscope.
The first volume on Silver & Gold, Gloria, displays Sufjan in a humble and grace-filled state playing beautifully orchestrated folk. I Am Santa’s Helper (Volume 7) is 23 songs all clocking in around 1-2 minutes showing the more paranoid, schizophrenic side of Sufjan’s personality, yet all brought together by some common themes and melodies. Infinity Voyage (Volume 8) is by far the most bizarre album, combining Christmas music with the electro-funk and dance pop of Sufjan’s most recent album, Age of Adz, to some very mixed results. Let It Snow (Volume 9) contains your more classic Christmas sound, and finally, Christmas Unicorn (Volume 10) rounds things out with the most theme-oriented and seemingly thesis statement for the collection.
For me, the first and last volumes (Gloria and Christmas Unicorn) stand as the best as they have the best originals as well as some of the best renditions of classic Christmas songs. “Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You From Christmases Past” is a raggedy back-country Christmas tune that swings along pleasantly with all the requisite “ho hos” needed. “Baracola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)” is one of the most beautifully sung songs on Silver & Gold with wonderful harmonies and orchestration that match the wintry beauty of the best work on Greetings from Michigan.
Not all of Silver & Gold glistens though. The schizophrenic volume of I Am Santa’s Little Helper contains plenty of low-level cuts like “Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling” and “Mr. Frosty Man” where it doesn’t appear much effort was put into them and stand as just a bit too goofy for my taste. Infinity Voyage’s takes on “Do You See What I See”and “Joy To the World” as long, experimental tracks of glitched-out electro pop that I could most definitely do without. That being said, each volume does have a song or two that holds its weight and could belong right among Sufjan’s best work in terms of quality.
The closing volume, Christmas Unicorn, opens with a sweeping take on one of our all-time favorite Christmas songs in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” before kicking into other rollicking classics like “We Need A Little Christmas” and “Up On The Housetop”. The album closes with arguably its two biggest statements in “Justice Delivers Its Death” and “Christmas Unicorn”, two songs that deal with much more than Santa and his reindeer. “Justice Delivers Its Death” has Sufjan finding great dismay in the materialism of this world, pointing to everyone “storing up treasures in vain” and wishing for “silver and gold” even with its vanishing nature; its haunting and poignant in its message without being preachy. “Christmas Unicorn” is a more humorous song, but speaks to the complex nature of the holiday but speaks to it as if it is himself. “I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin/I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and a bow-tie on my chin!/ Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine…Oh I’m hysterically American! I’ve a credit card on my wrist.” On and on it goes. This song very much speaks to the fascination and inner conflict Stevens has about the marquee holiday and probably even speaks to his feelings about his Christian faith as a whole: he has a deep endearment and fascination to it, but constantly wrestles with the demons and conflicts that reside there.
Clearly, there aren’t many more vulnerable and varied Christmas collections out there, and for that I highly recommend Silver & Gold this holiday season. Everything isn’t meant for everyone (like my distaste for Volume 8), but it is a revealing and often beautiful collection of songs from one of the most interesting and prolific artists today.
Can’t Miss: “Baracola”, “Justice Delivers Its Death”, “Christmas In The Room”, “Christmas Unicorn”, “We Need a Little Christmas”
Can’t Hit: “Joy to the World”, “Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling”, “Ave Maria”, “Do You Hear What I Hear”