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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sufjan Stevens's Songs for Christmas

Sufjan Stevens is on the cusp, moving from cult figure into some sort of stardom:

  • His summer release, The Avalanche, a collection of outtakes from his masterful Illinois album, was a very mixed bag, with some very good cuts, but far from his best work. Yet for the first time he broke into Billboard’s top 100 albums chart.
  • His three-night concert run at New York’s Town Hall in late September sold out almost immediately (helped by a $25 ticket price). When I wrote to his Brooklyn-based record label, Asthmatic Kitty, to bemoan the fact that I (and I assume many other fans) would be missing the concerts, I got a reply that indicated that Sufjan and his company were taken aback by the success, surprised by the quick sellouts. They admitted that the $25 price may have been a miscalculation, since tickets were immediately, inevitably being offered on Craigslist and through brokers for $200 or more – and fans were the losers. (An amazing new 10-minute song, “Majesty, Snowbird,” was captured by someone at one of the Town Hall shows and is currently a popular clip on YouTube.)
  • A recent half-hour set on PBS’s Austin City Limits probably introduced Sufjan to more new listeners than ever before. (See clips on PBS’s web site.)
  • And now there is another good news/bad news announcement on the Asthmatic Kitty web site…Sufjan’s new boxed set, Songs for Christmas, is sold out and backordered. (Amazon seems to still have stock.)

All this growing popularity is immensely well deserved. Sufjan Stevens’s “orchestral folk-pop” is unique and often breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. The soft-spoken yet incantatory power of songs like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” helped make Illinois the best album I’ve heard in the last few years. And Seven Swans, his most overtly religious album, contains several songs (such as “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” and “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”) that move a cynical old agnostic like me to tears. Poetic and mystical rather than preachy, Sufjan’s Christianity remains in the background and on the edges of his very fine “secular” works, Michigan and Illinois, the first two in a projected series of 50 albums named after the 50 states.

Inevitably Jesus is somewhat more prominent in the new boxed Christmas set. It consists of 5 EP-length discs, 42 cuts in all (some, as on all his albums, brief instrumental fragments or transitions), two hours of music for slightly more than the price of one CD. Sufjan has been doing an annual mini-album each Christmas, mixing traditional and original material, both religious and secular, and this set collects the four previous discs and adds a new, longer one for 2006. His melodic style is well matched to holiday songs. If the thought of new renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” “The First Noel,” or (three times, no less) “O Come O Come Emmanuel” makes you gag, this may not be the best new album for your collection. But if you’re a fan (as you may have gathered, I am), you won’t want to miss it.

Several of the best original songs are sad or wistful or even angry. They provide a good counterpoint to such whimsical fun as “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance.” Among these new blue-Christmas classics are “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” – a possibly autobiographical piece, simple and lovely and sad; and “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” – a good quarreling-lovers holiday weepie in the tradition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” (And actually, that’s only a medium-length title for a Sufjan song.)

The new 2006 disc closes with three of these less-than-joyful songs in Sufjan’s patented mini-oratorio mode. They are wonderful: “Jupiter Winter” is cosmic in scope, channeling Gustav Holst for its ending (according to Sufjan’s notes); “Sister Winter” is a much more personal song of sadness and loss, building to a rock-symphonic close that resembles “Majesty, Snowbird,” the new concert-only opus that is creating such a stir; and “Star of Wonder,” mysterious and gorgeous, sustains itself for seven magical minutes.

Certainly the new material provides the most artistically satisfying and exciting parts of the box. But the traditional carols are well done too, and will make excellent additions to your iPod Xmas playlist. Some of the better ones include “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “We Three Kings” and “O Holy Night” (the two blended into one seamless cut), the slightly retitled “What Child Is This Anyway?” and the great-for-kids “The Friendly Beasts.”

The set includes a 40-page booklet, stickers and a poster. Get it while you can. By next year, Mr. Stevens may have become too big to do this kind of homemade Christmas present for us again.


Blogger Rodney said...

Great review and I agree completely. I bought the set ($17) theoretically for myself, then decided to "share it" with my daughter (I get to rip the contents onto the computer, she gets to take the set back with her to college.) I've been listening to it to and from work and at work -- an inspiring and quite varied seasonal offering that nicely balances the traditional, the individual, and the obsessive (e.g., all those versions of "O Come, O Come," "Holy, Holy, Holy," etc.) Song most likely to end up on any future Christmas mix of my own: the utterly charming "I Saw Three Ships."


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