By Shain Shapiro
I have to admit, I can be quite the grouch around Yuletide celebrations. I openly lambaste the materialism that modern-day Christmas has become; hell, I'm Jewish and I receive presents and cards from friends and family all over. Maybe it going season-after-season celebrating Hanukkah with a lack of presents in comparison to my Jesus-loving friends, but Christmas never struck a positive chord in my obviously cold soul. This review is a perfect example; it's only mid-November, and I am not only participating in the whole holiday hootenanny by reviewing a Christmas record, a box set of all things, but I am contributing to the whole consumerism angle because in the end, I recommend acquiring the set in question, a five-year recording project of EPs by Sufjan Stevens entitled simply Songs For Christmas. Past aggression towards the holiday season, dislike of unrelenting materialism and grouchiness aside, Songs for Christmas is as lovely as a drunken toboggan adventure with cafeteria meal trays. That is because Songs For Christmas is more Sufjan Stevens than Christmas-y, more music than ornament and more turkey than stuffing.
First and foremost, to a certain extent, Stevens is a sacred, Christian-influenced artist, so understanding that he has been steadily recording Christmas songs since 2001 is no surprise. Both Seven Swans and the gorgeous Illinois contain sporadic flickers of Christ, albeit in a more self-referential, hidden manner. While very little of his work is intentionally Christian, the intrinsic influence of Christ and company is there. On Songs For Christmas, the influence comes full circle, as Stevens smears together both traditional and original songs to praise, celebrate and in some ways, make fun of the spirit of the season.
The box set is divided into five separately packaged EPs, entitled Noel (2001), Hark! (2002), Ding! Dong! (2003), Joy (2005) and Peace (2006). Stevens recorded a Christmas EP each December (except 2004) with his friends and band mates at home in Michigan. Packaged together with lyrics, artwork, games, stickers and other doodads in typical eccentric Stevens fashion, Songs For Christmas is a meaty, dense tour-de-force. I could use the fruitcake metaphor, but I will refrain this time around, because I hate fruitcake. The standards are there, sometimes two or three renditions, including "Jingle Bells," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," a brilliant version of "Amazing Grace" on Noel and others, but what differentiates this set from other stocking stuffers is Sufjan's own work, which at times mirrors the heartfelt complexity and piercing emotion found on his secular work.
Utilizing myriad instruments – basically anything they could find around the house as the story goes, including banjos, harpsichord, jingle bells of course, fiddles, brass, and hand claps – Stevens and his band crafted Christmas songs worth consuming regardless of the season, because each emotive, folk-fueled melody functions impressively aside from the Santa and sleigh libretto. "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" off of Ding! Dong! and the heavily orchestral, bewilderingly complex "Get Behind Me, Santa!" off Peace are as good as anything else in his massive catalogue, as flirtatious brass lines tremble and triumph over booming choruses, fragile vocals and grand piano. The same goes for "Put the Lights on the Tree" from Hark!, "Christmas in July" on Peace and "The Incarnation" off of Joy. Moreover, more classical, solo piano and guitar renditions of both covers and originals join the team, further buttressing the musicianship, eclecticism and originality of the set. If Christmas were always at Sufjan's house, I would happily provide the eggnog and caroling songbook, but let him sing.
All in all, Songs for Christmas is as lovely as running into the most attractive girl at the office holiday shindig under the mistletoe, lubricated on mulled wine. Yet maybe I have been a little too enthusiastic, as I still dislike Christmas but I adore this collection. Maybe it is because this collection is not about Christmas at all; or maybe, and go with me on this one, it is actually about what Christmas truly, intrinsically and religiously signifies.
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