Sufjan Stevens - SIlver & Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vol. 6-10 (Asthmatic Kitty)

“I conjure the fruitcake world of my own imagination with steadfast affection for the unattainable bliss of Christmas promises”.

Released Dec 19th, 2012 via Asthmatic Kitty / By Clementine Lloyd
Sufjan Stevens - SIlver & Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vol. 6-10 (Asthmatic Kitty) So we reach that time, the end of the year and that untenable happiness that is proliferated across every advertising campaign, urging you to buy more in order to sustain the happiness we so stridently aim for. Christmas has arrived. This sounds embittered, perhaps, but not far from the truth. Good cheer is not limitless; one always ends up feeling the strain if only for a short while. And this is what Sufjan Stevens has been waxing on, for some time it seems. He asks “What is the secret of the Christmas Seasons Enduring Captivation of Black Magic that casts its spell on our hagridden selves?” With the release of his second collection of Christmassy creams Silver & Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vol. 6-10, Stevens is not mollified by the endless calls to ‘be merry’, but is interested in peeling back the façade and peer into the depths of this mystical season.

In the format of 5 EPs, this mammoth 58 track selection box offers joy, jeers and sniggers, covers of the Christmas greats (meaning Carols and Hymns; there are no Noddy Holders or Cliff Richards in here), romantic twists and decadent follies. Including some interesting essays in the records sleeve, his tunes are backed up with his discourse into what makes Christmas what it is, now and then. Its treatment is intelligent, and yet still evokes the Christmas spirit, as it should be. Picking up from where he left off in his previous collection of Christmas EPs, released in 2006, Stevens has numbered his volumes 6-10.

Volume 6, Gloria, opens with a twinkling undulation of ‘Silent Night’ sung with a chorus of men, women and children. Lulling you into a false sense of snowy security, Stevens inclusion of the 16th Century ‘Coventry Carol’, with lute strings and softly sung vocals that warm the cockles. However, he soon changes tack with ‘Lumberjack Christmas/ No One Can Save You From Christmases Past’, which tackles the very capitalist Christmas we have all come to know and love. Lyrics “If drinking makes it easy, the music’s kind of cheesy, the specials on the TV, Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho” set to a jaunty riff back up his diatribe that “Christmas music does justice to the criminal, marrying sacred and profane, bellowing prophecies of the Messiah in the same blustery breath as a candy-coated, holly-jolly, TV-jingle advertising a string of lights and a slice of fruitcake”.

And so this bleeds across to the next four volumes. Inclusions of the classic Carols such as ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ are treated with respect, whereas some are rebooted, pushed into the 21st century and given a more synthetic sheen. ‘Good King Wenceslas' makes a jibe at modernity with its robotic repetition of the fabled words. Fresh tracks penned by Stevens himself make for schizophrenic listening, as the volumes change tack from Gloria’s ‘Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree)’, holding pathos amongst its flowing chords and breathy vocals, and volume 8 Christmas Infinity Voyage’s instumental feedback heavy ‘Particle Physics’. The change in tone is no doubt due to the sheer material Stevens has collected over the years preceding the release. This also highlights the differing opinions of the season.

Whilst volume 7 I Am Santas Helper contains a subtly joyful, yet at times sardonic message in the strains of ‘Happy Family Christmas’, starting slow with the traditional sing along and soon breaks down into a wash of funk guitar and feedback, Volume 9, Let It Snow is more ethereal. Guest vocals from Cat Martino on ‘The Sleigh In The Moon’ and the stunning ‘Ave Maria’ lend a floaty openness, heralding the spiritual capacity that transcends the urge to buy stuff to appease friends and family. ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ Calls for friendliness and fun, celebrating the season in its earnestness. With flutes and hand-claps, the minimalist quality of the recording segues nicely into the final volume Christmas Unicorn. ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ is sweeping and choral, in keeping with tradition, but with a modern twist, not far away from the shoegaze pop of our age, an electronic twist underpinning what is possibly one of the best loved Christmas numbers. The lo-fi quality of the morose ‘Happy Karma Christmas’ balances out the tidings of good cheer with the end of a relationship; perhaps the title offering negative tiding, bad karma is out there.

‘Christmas Unicorn’ blasts through the final hall, all decked with holly to bring us out the other side, with a wry smile and the same sense of wonder we will always have about Christmas. Painting a picture of this fabled creature “with a billy goat beard and a sorcerers shield, and a mistletoe on my nose”, Stevens gaze reaches past the figure of the final volume, to encompass the holiday it is purporting to support. “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…I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest, I’m a construct of your mind. Oh I’m hysterically American, I’ve a credit card on my wrist, I’m a frantic shopper and a brave pill-popper, people say I don’t exist.” Going out with a bang, and not one of those weedy cracker ones, this 12 minute number transcends its mythical boundaries as it morphs to include the strains of the distinctly un-Christmassy ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division, as Stevens sings “I’m the Christmas Unicorn, It’s alright, I love you” whilst the Ian Curtis’ famed lyrics echo destruction. An overtly destructive end, perhaps, but as the layered vocals play out, chiming with synthetic beats and twinkling keys you cannot help but feel chirpy. Because, as Stevens says “Christmas is forever.”

Whilst offering no solution as to why we continue happily along this glittery road we call December, and mostly join in with all the joy it brings, perhaps smiling when we don’t want to, Sufjan Stevens certainly gives you a ride worth embarking on, giving you mental food for thought while you devour mince pies and chocolate. Perhaps this doesnt touch you. Perhaps you want the same old frolicking tunes that are piped into our hearts and homes year in year out? Well if you have ever felt the joys of Christmas, the type that comes from a nip in the air and seasons greeting from a stranger, not the kind that comes from a freshly unwrapped gift, you need this in your life. Staggering in its strangeness, wonderful in its wide-eyed celebration of old and new, flouting the capitalist Christmas, shouted from Steven’s soapbox, the collection is joyful, from creation to cover.