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Good God but Sufjan Stevens likes Christmas music. This 58 song collection, recorded as annual EP’s between 2006 and 2012 is his second box set of festive tunes, bringing his total up to 100 Christmas songs in 12 years. We can happily say 'fuck you, Cliff', Sufjan is the real King of Yuletide singsong, he couldn’t be more Christmassy if he was ho ho ho-ing through a mouthful of plum pudding with the baby Jesus in one hand, a jingle stick in the other and had his arse atop a be-tinsled Norwegian spruce. He knows what he’s about here - Silver & Gold completely understands the rules of Christmas music - that number one, there are no specific genre conventions thus we have the most cherished of hymns rendered absolutely faithfully, crooner standards done as completely mental electro epics and originals that are everything from hushed lullabies to garage rock thrashers. Then there’s rule number two: the best songs are suffused with joy. Christmas songs*, above all things, above all cash-grabbing, X Factor-voting, Facebook-liking cynicism are about joy, and Silver & Gold is stuffed with it.
The three hours can feel quite daunting at first, but worry not. This is a set of distinct EPs recorded a year apart and each with its own identity.
It also offers something to the Sufjan fan whose eyes are less struck with tinsel and fire- you can hear the experiments and ideas that connected 2005’s Come On Feel The Illinois to the more progressive electronic flavours of its successor, 2010’s The Age of Adz.
Volume VI (I-V were the first box set), Gloria is essentially ‘classic’ Sufjan Stevens: ‘Silent Night’ is done as a hushed folky, the Stevens original ‘The Carol of St Benjamin the Bearded’ is sweet and melodic and ‘Baracola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree)’ is an elegiac sigh. Then there’s a beautiful rendition of ‘The Coventry Carol’, because Stevens knows that melodies surviving for over 400 years really don’t need to be fucked with.
It points the way to Volume VII, I Am Santa’s Helper, a far more knockabout, stripped back affair, which is both the longest at 23 tracks, and the unfussiest of the five volumes. The length makes it a little patchy -the joy of ’We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ is in singing them, rarely in listening- but the more sacred end of his output is quite stunning. ‘Ah Holy Jesus’ and ‘Idumea’ dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are lovely things, the choral arrangements are sincere but not pristine, giving the recordings a charm that marks them apart from the Carols From Kings CD your Granny owns.
‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ initially sounds as tuneful and unremarkable as a high school sing-along, until a cacophonous drone of beating drums and woodwind rises slowly behind it, creating something pretty wonderful. The originals here are far more knockabout than anywhere else, ‘Mr Frosty Man’ is garagey fun and ‘Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling’ is just plain daft. Not as daft as what’s to come though.
In terms of completely nutbar mental, Volumes VIII Christmas Infinity Voyage IX, Let It Snow and X Christmas Unicorn go off the deep end. This is where Stevens starts to play with synths and drum machines with the enthusiasm of a small boy in a toy box. In places it’s the aural equivalent of drawing on the wall in crayon, though elsewhere things come together nicely.
A nine minute electroclash version of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ probably falls into the former category - it’s fun but deeply odd, while the poptastic reading of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ that opens Christmas Unicorn is great, weirdly managing to take one of the saddest of the festive standards and imbue it with a hand clappy joy. The decision to segue a robotic, industrial sounding version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ into Prince’s ‘Alphabet St’ is nothing short of inspired.
Some of the originals here are very fine indeed: ‘Christmas In The Room’ in particularly is a lovely, sad pop song that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Stevens output, while the 15 minute prog-out ‘The Child With The Star On His Head’ is brilliantly bonkers. The final track of the whole caboodle is both the oddest and also the most brilliant thing here, ‘Christmas Unicorn’ starts as a rather silly sounding folk pastiche but adds layers of sounds and gorgeous melodies, building voice on top of voice for over 12 minutes, exploding into the kind of grand chorus that would send the Polyphonic Spree packing, before breaking down and resolving again as, of all things, Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, with an emphasis on the ‘Joy’.
This is a collection of songs you’re only going to listen to once a year, and nothing here is going to enter the mass-consciousness of the Christmas canon. It’s very odd, varies wildly in tone and has its fair share of clunky bits, but it’s all done in the spirit of fun and is always endearingly sincere. In the end you shouldn’t over-think it. Like the season itself it’s best to simply throw yourself into it and enjoy.
*apart from 'Last Christmas'
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