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Sufjan Stevens Christmas compilation brings cheer

By Billy Lambert
On November 28, 2012

 

Sufjan Stevens is comin' to town with a Christmas album compilation filled to the brim with gifts to prepare you for the upcoming holiday season.

"Silver & Gold," the title of his compilation (and instant holiday nostalgia trigger for any 90s kid with a Game Boy Color), includes five separate albums under its banner, totaling a stocking-stuffing 58 tracks.  If that seems like an overwhelming blizzard of music to sift through, fret not: The albums are ordered chronologically, spanning from the years 2006-2010, a period that saw Sufjan gradually trade in the banjo solos and angelic orchestral build-ups of albums "Illinoise" and "Greetings From Michigan" for the chaotic soundboard and ubiquitous autotune of his most recent true studio album, "Age of Adz."

Because of this, the opportunity to isolate Sufjan's aesthetic transition into yearly increments is an interesting one, although his signature lyrical essence of lightheartedly serious spiritual contemplation remains largely untouched.

"Gloria," the first album in the collection, finds Sufjan at his most fundamental in this latter regard. "Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One" and "Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)" are the two standouts in this vein, the former riding a beautiful flute and violin overture into tenderly understated lyrics such as "Oh be kind to me/Oh Benjamin, who keeps his hands inside his sleeves" to the flowery strum of a single guitar. Minimalism is the heart of Sufjan's music at this stage, certainly the softest listen of all the albums.

"I Am Santa's Helper" is the most adorably named album here, its implicit innocence jiving well with the various instrumental fragments which make up the album.  Many of these run between 50 seconds and two minutes, and although it is pretty wonderful to see an artist dedicate several songs to just jamming out on the track, their unpolished nature can make for tedious listening at times. "Mr. Frosty Man," however, is one complete work which stands up well amidst the vast collection, if only for the opportunity to hear Sufjan do his best Velvet Underground impression.

"Christmas Ultimate Voyage," though, marks the first signal of Sufjan's current affinity for more electronic instrumentalism. The generous 15 minutes given to "The Child With the Star On His Head" is an exhibition of Sufjan's anti-commercialism in relation to the more genuine and simple feelings he sees as necessary to the Christmas season.  After wondering aloud what "the trust we put in things/and small IDs/and engineering" can really fulfill, the empty space is occupied by a boisterously static guitar riffs while the flute, prominent only two albums before, now relegated to the background. 

The last two albums, "Let It Snow" and "Christmas Unicorn," offer a stronger devotion to electric tones which so permeated "Age Of Adz."  The eponymous closing track Christmas Unicorn, in fact, shares many characteristics with the ultra-long distorted symphony that is "Impossible Soul" on "Age of Adz," starting with the gentle string of a harp and ending on a bittersweet rendition of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

The song really is the perfect end to a set of albums united by their search for something deeper in the mad consumerist dash which is Christmas.  With repetitive lyrics such as "I'm the Christmas Unicorn/You're the Christmas Unicorn" over a nebulous electronic loop, Sufjan makes even the simplest, most absurd things stand out amidst the chaos.  While no music may be able to save you from a traffic jam on the way to Aunt Greta's in Ohio, it wouldn't hurt to let him try. 


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