Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens (Review)

I’ve heard most of the songs on here before, countless times. But I had never heard them like this, in such a sublime context.
Songs For Christmas, Sufjan Stevens

Plenty of folks have pointed out that Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas set — which collects Sufjan’s storied 5 Christmas-themed EPs and wraps them all up in a deluxe package complete with essays, videos, photos, and stickers(!) — presents an interesting historical document of Sufjan’s burgeoning skills as a songwriter and composer. Across the 5 EPs — which stretch all the way back to 2001 — you get a concise portrait of Sufjans movement from breathy banjo-picker to full-fledged conductor, as each successive EP grows in musical scope.

Viewing Songs for Christmas only on an historical basis, as a sort of interesting collection of curios that are viewed more as footnotes in Sufjan’s overall discography, is to miss the point entirely, not to mention the beauty and even power contained within these 5 discs.

Listening to Sufjan’s renditions of these classic Christmas carols — which range in tone from cheeky to casual to reverent — as well as his own contributions to the seasonal canon, one can’t help but be struck by the way in which he redeems the songs from their status as cheesy, overly-familiar tunes that have been stripped of much of their profundity by Christmas pageants, TV commercials, and department store muzak.

At their best, which is to say almost always, the renditions on these 5 discs ultimately serve as a reminder that Christmas carols are actually some of Christian theology’s best and brightest proponents, encapsulating both the wonderful dread and terrible hope that lies at the heart of the holiday.

This first struck me while listening to Sufjan’s rendition of “What Child Is This?” on EP #2 (“Hark!”). Sufjan’s version of this already melancholy song is even moreso, propelled by a marching, militant drumbeat and acoustic guitar that forces the song on at an inexorable pace. Meanwhile, an organ sighs away and an electronic keyboard’s rusty, fluttering notes rail against Sufjan’s breathy voice on the refrain, occasionally breaking out in momentary psychedelic seizures.

It’s worth noting that the answer to the question in the carol’s title lies within the second refrain: “Nails, spear shall pierce him through/The cross be borne for me, for you/Hail, hail the Word made flesh.” The child, whom “shepherds watch and angels sing,” is the necessary sacrifice for Mankind’s sin. And so it only makes sense that Sufjan underscores the song with a doom-laden beat, one that sounds not unlike the heavy footsteps the Christ child would take 30 years later, on the road to Golgotha; not unlike the hammer driving nails into His flesh; not unlike the whip and scourge tearing into His flesh.

Of course, Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t end in the grave, but in the glorious truth of resurrection. And so to does this version of “What Child Is This?” end, with a lovely cascade of silvery bells and trilling piano notes that leaves the earlier solemnity behind and drifts into something far more peaceful and transcendent.

And then there’s what is perhaps my favorite of all of the songs in this collection. “The Friendly Beasts” is a traditional carol from 12th century France, and is from the viewpoint of the animals in the stable where Christ was born (a donkey, sheep, cows, doves) as they sing of the gifts they were able to give to the baby Christ. It’s the sort of carol that practically begs to the centerpiece in your local church’s Christmas pageant. Indeed, one can almost see the little tykes in their homemade animal outfits, singing offkey and forgetting lines as parents proudly videotape the spectacle. But listening more closely the carol’s words, and their implications, one is struck by the humanity present in these animals’ tales.

Any Christian aware of good orthodoxy will tell you that Christ was born fully human and fully divine, but rarely do we stop to think what that means. But this song poses an interesting reminder: if Christ was born fully human, it only makes sense that he would need, for instance, a warm woolen coat, or the doves’ soft songs to keep Him from crying.

But that’s the messy side of humanity, the side of humanity where, as Sufjan puts it in one of his essays, we see Jesus — our Lord and Saviour — “trembling and suckling and cooing and burping and crying and laughing and giggling and spitting up breast milk all over the place.” It’s frankly quite difficult, and perhaps even a bit offensive and sacreligious, to think that the Lord of Lords entered into this world in a form that necessitated breastfeeding, snotty noses, and poopy diapers, but Christianity simply can’t ignore it and still remain Christianity.

Indeed, if Christ isn’t fully human in His divinity, He’s not really much of a Messiah or sympathetic High Priest. Rather, He’s just one more in a line of wise men with sage advice who look beatific while remaining ultimately untouched and disconnected from the messiness of human life. That might be the greatest message contained within these beloved-yet-cliched carols, and the one that is the most overlooked.

And speaking of messy humanity, that has always been a hallmark of Sufjan’s songwriting. Some of his most memorable songs concern downtrodden individuals seeking to find some measure of grace in this broken world. And so it’s no surprise that one finds similar moments here in Christmas.

“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” could pass as a Michigan b-side, similar in tone and content to songs like “The Upper Peninsula” and “Romulus.” It’s a tale of holiday disappointment, of fathers burning holiday gifts and sisters running away. In the end, the song’s protagonist can only sigh, both hopefully and half-heartedly, “In time the Lord will rise” before concluding “Silent night, nothing feels right.”

While the bulk of the collection is of a more somber tone, Sufjan throws in plenty of cheeky originals for good measure, as if to winkingly remind us that Christmas is also a time of joy, even silliness. Take, for instance, the uber-funky “Get Behind Me, Santa!,” which finds “The Christmas Curmudgeon” complaining about St. Nick’s habit of breaking and entering, while Santa and his elves, along with the “Honkey Tonk Christmas Choir” attempt to lighten his tone (“Is it a crime to give a little once in awhile/I travel round the world tryin’ to make people smile!”).

Sure, it’s cheesy as all get out. If it were anyone other than Sufjan attempting these songs, he’d probably be deluged by jeers. But such songs are ultimately redeemed by Sufjan’s penchant for earnestness, catchy hooks, irresistable melodies, and preternatural talent for arrangements. Witness “Christmas In July,” which glides by on graceful, Stereolab-esque string arrangements like a cool, crisp December breeze, or the glorious “Star Of Wonder,” which comes close to Sigur Rós-like moments of rapture.

And let’s not forget the instrumentals that appear throughout Songs for Christmas: a banjo/electric guitar rendition of “Silent Night” that would make Don Peris proud; “Angels We Have Heard On High” transformed into a wintry wonderland of cascading bells and chimes; a sparse, heartbreaking piano rendition of “Once In Royal David’s City”; or “The Winter Solstice,” which echoes the beautiful-yet-baffling kaleidoscope of sounds from Sufjan’s underrated Enjoy Your Rabbit.

Taken all together, Songs for Christmas can be a daunting package. It’s rough around the edges. Some of the renditions and originals work better than others, and sometimes the off-the-cuff nature of the whole thing — each EP was recorded in one week using whatever instruments and collaborators happened to be in the vicinity — is quite evident. But ultimately, it’s a collection that is incredibly easy to sit down and enjoy, and perhaps most important, be incredibly affected by.

Perhaps it’s all due to what Sufjan describes as “that Creepy Christmas feeling,” a sort of joyful sadness that, as he puts it, “causes transformation of the heart and compels me to call my grandmother, to learn to love my parents, to respect my friends, to consider the immeasurable gift of life, the incarnation of God, the Christ Child, a newborn babe… who would conquer the world not with brute force, but with love.”

I think I know something of what he speaks. My first real listening session with the collection proper took place on the drive home from a long Thanksgiving vacation — good and enjoyable, but still long and tiring. My stomach was full of food, the silvery haze of twilight made the passing countryside a little less tangible, and my wife was quietly sleeping next to me — all while these songs played over the car stereo.

For a few moments, somewhere between Laurel and Fremont, Nebraska, everything was transformed. I was caught up in a moment of profound gratitude — gratitude for my wife, for my families (old and new) and friends, for this long twilight drive, for this life with which I’ve been blessed, and most of all, for that Child that was born to die and rise again two thousand years ago.

I’ve heard most of the songs on here before, countless times. But I had never heard them like this, in such a sublime context. Consequently, I had never heard their message in such a manner either. And so, I applaud, and even thank Sufjan and his “Honkey Tonk Christmas Choir” for such an encounter. Yes, it’s great and interesting to see him grow in his skills as a musician and arranger, but it’s even greater to hear what he does with those skills time and again — and to feel the results causing changes somewhere deep down inside my own heart, mind, and soul.

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