Songs For Christmas – Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty 28
Full disclosure: I’m not a Christian. I only play one on the radio.
Well, well, wellwhat do we have here, this joyous holiday season? Another stopgap EP/album/box set/Self Portrait that isn’t about one of the 50 states by Sufjan Stevens? Doesn’t he realize that even at a Beatles-like pace, it’ll take him 25 years to finish his every-state-in-the-union album-themed project? What’s this shit?! What is it, indeed? Five EPs recorded from December 2001 through June 2006 and slammed together into one huge box set buffet.
The first halfa full 21 out of the total 42yields seven songs of inspired Sufjan lunacy. Therefore, for every magical “Angels We Have Heard On High” or scintillating “Put the Lights on the the Tree” or Nirvanesque Renaissance-era stomp of “I Saw Three Ships”consider tackling that effervescent era, next time you’re considering a cultural signpostor the beautifully delicious and radiant “Once in Royal David’s City,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” and “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” or the sublime “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever,” which raised every hair on my neck and arms as Stevens delivered a mesmerizing performancebut for every one of those gems, we get yet another toothless version of “Amazing Grace,” “We Three Kings,” “Oh Holy Night,” or agonizingly earnest readings of “What Child Is This Anyway?” times three. What child? It’s a MYTH, miss(ter)exchange reverence for a new myth all our own, all our own.
At that clip, I didn’t look forward to the second half of this Titantic/iceberg cacophony. But odd things happened during the mad dash to the few remaining life boats. Stevensas he so often has done in his strangely appealing and anarchic manner (Atavistic! The HST Angel Sang!)reels off one magical, Brian Wilson bit of heaven after another: “Ding Dong”a prototypical holiday ring tone; “All the King’s Horns” with banjo racing an acoustic and exquisite Simon and Garfunkel/legions of eerie vocals; the muted sanguine waltz of “The Friendly Beasts;” the garage/grunge punk rock of “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!” (Yes, he loves exclamation points); the ’60s folk of “The First Noel;” the Stereolab organ-glazed donut of “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)" (Yes, he also loves parenthesises); the goose bump times a hundred moonlit nights with a love-at-first-sight gal of gorgeous and sweet beauty of “The Incarnation” (Yes, he really loves deep pathos and so do I on this slice of Kevin Shields wonderwall), a genuinely good version of “Joy to the World,” a tongue-in-Jack White’s cheek turn on “Get Behind Me, Santa;” a classical foray via quirky Stevensland on “Christmas in July;” and a second version of “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” that easily tops the turgid mess on the set’s first section, a cosmically haunting techno mood piece; “Jupiter Winter,” which segues into an enchanting piano and acoustic guitar monologue, “Sister Winter,” before the set’s masterpiece of form, style, content and artistic grace, the celestial epic; “Star of Wonder”seven minutes which gave me more sincere images of heaven than seven years of Christian dogma shoved down my throat.
It was times like these when I loosened my grip on Stevens and his holiday agenda and realized that all was more than well in his neck of the interstellar overdrive universehis heart is mighty and large with room enough for the occasional misplaced “Amazing Grace” warhorse. “Star of Wonder” seems almost an appropriate title to a future Stevens biowell, well, well, what is this star of wonder up to on this current 42-song bonanza? Beautiful music played by an artist who can just about toss off a masterpiece in his sleep these days — may we also shadow such magnitude in our own creative dreamscapes.