For some years now, Sufjan Stevens has been recording little EPs of Christmas songs for people he knew, to "make himself appreciate Christmas more."
Now thankfully he's sharing these songs with his eager listeners, in a five-disc collection that includes his folky reinterpretations of classic carols -- and then the festive ones he made himself. This is not the treacly garbage they put on the radio or in malls -- this is enchanting, festive, fresh music for the holidays.
The first EP -- recorded in 2001 -- is very much old-school Sufjan. Much folkier and banjoey, especially in the lo-fi "O Come O Come Emmanuel," folksy little songs about going to the country, and "Amazing Grace." But there are exceptions -- a shimmering reinterpration of an old hymn, and some bouncy sleigh bell pop.
But the collection blossoms with the sparkling "Angels We Have Heard on High," which is the lead-in to his more polished style. In the four EPs that follow, Sufjan flourishes out into synthy pop, xylophone tunes, dancey holiday music, mellow folk, and exquisite piano balladry. There's the occasional banjo tune, but they grow rarer as time goes on.
And as the collection moves forward, Stevens' music becomes more accomplished with each passing year. His music becomes more complex and more enchanting, right up to the rather pensive and downbeat fifth disc -- which is album-length -- with the shimmering piano of "Winter Solstice" and the offbeat synthpop of "Jupiter Winter."
Sufjan does repeat himself occasionally -- there are multiple versions of "O Come O Come Emmanual," "Lo! A Rose E'er Blooming," and "Once in Royal David's City." Fortunately each time he records the same song, it's radically reimagined. And even songs that most people are heartily sick of -- like "Jingle Bells" -- lose that appalling shopping-mall feeling when Sufjan plays them.
As well as the traditionals and classics, Sufjan injects a lot of his own songs. He makes a festive mishmash of instrumentals -- Hammond, guitar, a little flute, banjo, and lots and lots of bells! Lyrically this is right up his street. He can switch effortlessly from "K-Mart is closed/So is the bakery" to singing about the little Lord Jesus laying down his head in a manger.
And Stevens isn't afraid to look at the side of Christmas that isn't filled with love, joy and goodwill ("Our father yells/Throwing gifts in the wood stove... Silent night/Nothing feels right"). But then, he also has whimsical pop tunes like "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" which is suitably jolly for the holidays. Not to mention the sweetly romantic side as well ("I might kiss you on the back of your neck/Because it's Christmas time."
Sufjan Stevens is in excellent form with his collection of Christmas tunes. Old songs get a new spin, and new songs are absolutely enchanting in his psychfolky way. Now that it's Christmas time...