Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sufjan Stevens - Songs For Christmas

I won’t bore you with the story…suffice it to say that, from 2001 until the present, Sufjan Stevens has been recording a Christmas EP per year (with the exception of 2004, when he was working hard on making Illinoise) within the comfort of his own home. He never meant to release them publicly (except for the 2006 recording); rather, they were recorded to give to his family and friends every Christmas. If you want to know the whole story, you’ll have to buy this collection and read the story “Christmas Tube Socks”, which was written by “Santa Sufjan”.
And that helps to sum up this wonderful collection. This is not just a music box set; a collection of Christmas songs new and old. This release is an event, a Christmas present in and of itself, from Sufjan to you. (It sounds cheesy, I know, but stay with me here).
We’ll get to the songs in a second. But first I’ll highlight what you get in the box itself.
You get 5 stickers…one for each cover of the EPs. You also get a fold-out, poster sized comic strip involving Santa (who declares Christmas Eve to be “Chocolate Santa Day”), Mrs. Claus, elves, Sufjan, The Danielson Famile, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and a villain named Evil Sister Winter. As if that weren’t enough, the back of this comic strip is a family picture of The Stevens Clan, complete with an inflatable Santa. Good times. There is also a book that is titled, “Songbook and other stuff”, with a picture of a Charlie Brown-esque tree on the front. The inside is chock full of stories, pictures, and, my favorite part, the lyrics and chords to every single song included in this set. Not only can you sing along with the CD, but you can also play along with them. Or, if you’d prefer, sitting around in a circle on Christmas, and singing them with your family (I think he’d like that).
And then there’s the music. Oh, the music. With Low’s Christmas album out there, it’d be tough to say that this is the best Christmas collection ever released…but it definitely comes close.
Being 5 CDs and 42 songs long, one can see how it might get old after a while. That’s a viable fear, but one that doesn’t really hold water. It drags a bit in places, but, for the most part, every song on here is gold (Jerry…Gold!). He does an amazing job of mixing Christmas classics (and the occasional hymn) with his own compositions. He also does a great job of placing instrumental songs throughout the collection…kind of like musical interludes. You know, just to mix it up.
The arrangements are pretty much what you’d expect from Sufjan at this point…definitely more along the fully orchestrated lines of Illinoise and less like the more stripped down Seven Swans, although those moments of quiet are still very much evidenced here (especially on tracks like the gorgeous, extremely lo-fi “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”). But, even though it seems predictable, most of the songs on here are anything but. His own songs range from silly and upbeat (“Get Behind Me, Santa!”) to low-key and gorgeous (“We’re Goin’ to the Country”). And his renditions of Christmas classics make them seem new and fresh when they could just as easily old and tired. Songs like “O Holy Night” have been done by countless artists (from Jessica Simpson to the crazy no-name fella who has recorded, quite possibly, the worst, and funniest, version ever heard), yet his version sounds like nothing I’d ever expect it to sound like.
I could go on and on, and pretty much say the same things over and over again. It’s tough to say much about a Christmas release, especially when there are so many out there. But I will say this…for a guy who doesn’t normally enjoy Christmas music (me), I very much love this album. Even if it was released in July, I would still listen to and love this album. I have a very short list of Christmas CDs that I enjoy, but this has definitely made the top 2 (and is possibly tied for first, but I have to give it a little more time).

Rating: 8.5 (9.8 for a Christmas album)

Essential Tracks: “We’re Goin’ to the Country”, “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”, “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”, “Only at Christmas Time”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel”

Favorite Tracks: “Put the Lights on the Tree”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”, “We Three Kings”


Ben said...

If it's as good as John Denver and the Muppets' Christmas album, consider it sold!

Matthew said...

You were a day late with this review. I'm going to have to write you up. Oh, didn't you hear? I'm Sgt of Arms in the blog government.