Band of the Day

2011.12.25

Sufjan Stevens

One of this generation's most gifted composers and songwriters tries his hand at holiday music!
Our father yells, throwing gifts in the wood stove. My sister runs away, taking her books to the schoolyard. In time the snow will rise.
lyrics from That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!

Sufjan Stevens is a multi-instrumentalist originally from Detroit, Michigan. Though he was first associated with the early 2000s folk revival with his 2003 album Michigan, Stevens has also released albums heavily influenced by electronic music, rock, pop and classical music. Stevens is best known for his 2005 album Illinois, an album widely regarded as one of the best of the decade. Stevens plays a wide variety of instruments and records nearly all of the tracks of his heavily layered music on his own. In addition to his personal albums, Stevens has taken on other projects including film scoring, film directing and a mixed-media project on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Over the course of his full-length albums and other assorted projects, Stevens has established himself as one of the most influential and highly regarded American musicians of his generation.

I've always despised Christmas music. Big surprise, right? A music writer that doesn't like kitschy holiday music!?! Over the years, I've watched with horror as the beginning of Christmas music season inches backwards, now starting even before Thanksgiving. But thanks to Sufjan Stevens, I have a rebuttal to roommates and significant others who insistingly fill my surroundings with the sappy, saccharine jingle of holiday music every December: a Christmas album that's actually really good! It's not ironic, or done in a punk rock style or something gimmicky like that, it's just really heartfelt, and executed with the unique charm of one of the most gifted songwriters and composers of his generation. Where so much Christmas music is overly schmaltzy, even theatrical, Stevens takes the opposite approach, employing a simple folk style to classic hymns like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The combination of Steven's hushed, wavering vocals, gently strummed banjo, and unadorned medieval-sounding flutes is immediately arresting, falling somewhere between reverent and melancholy. In addition to being gorgeous, his use of banjo and medieval textures snaps you into the past, brushing away the hyper-commercialized associations of 21st century American Christmas with the first metallic twangs of the banjo strings, leaving you with something as earnest as you imagine the 15th century hymn was meant to be. The album, which is really a collection of five Christmas albums Stevens recorded over the years, has plenty of stylistic variety, sparse folk ditties, rock, orchestral romps, but if there's one theme that runs through it all, it's a sense of innocence. With its communal vocals, “Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!” sounds like a bunch of friends gathered around the piano banging out a song together for the pure fun of it. Except one of those friends is Sufjan Stevens, so its jolly, silly lyrics come in the form of the wonderfully intertwining vocal melody style he employs in classic songs like “Chicago” from his 2005 Illinois album. Veering away from traditional hymns and Christmas-themed fun, “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” is an original track describing Christmas day from the perspective of a child over delicately strummed acoustic guitar and melancholy picked banjo. Stevens shows his mastery of transforming simple declarative observations into a heart-wrenching narrative singing, “Going outside/Shoveling snow in the driveway, driveway/Taking our shoes,” then later matching the wide-eyed innocence and deadpan desolation of his half-whispered vocals, “Our father yells/Throwing gifts in the wood stove, wood stove/My sister runs away.” Over the course of its 42 tracks, Songs For Christmas covers an incredible amount of stylistic ground and conveys a huge variety of emotions along the way. But its greatest success is the feeling of genuine, unpretentious Christmas-ness that pervades the album. Not the romanticized, gag-inducing Christmas special Christmas; Stevens evokes the let's hang out with people we really care about, have an awesome time, and be thankful Christmas. On “Get Behind Me, Santa” Stevens sings, “You make it sound like Christmas is a four-letter word/Its a fact of life whether you like or not/So put your hands together and give it a shot!” So fellow haters of Christmas music, here's your exception! As a gift to you from us and the fine folks at Sufjan Steven's label Asthmatic Kitty, you'll find a much larger selection of featured songs than usual, enjoy!