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Sufjan Stevens: Songs for Christmas (Volumes I-V)

Stream all two-and-a-half hours on Sufjan's bandcamp page.

And read this transcription of the autiobiographical short story from the liner notes of the box set.

Call me a hipster, but this is probably my favorite Christmas thing ever. More epic than Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and possibly the best thing Sufjan Stevens has ever done.

The above autobiographical thing gives a very thorough backstory regarding the creation of these EP's: how Suf came to hate Christmas; how a burnt spatula gave him an epiphany about the place of Christ in the universe and what the heck that had to do with Christmas; and how the resulting yearly tradition of writing a Christmas EP as a gift to his family grew into an attempt to reconstruct Christmas music—to dig past the sentimental mush and find something that captured the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy that Sufjan called "That Creepy Christmas Feeling".

There's an emotional arc that develops over these five volumes. Given what Sufjan said about the lack of planning that went into each of these, said emotional arc is almost certainly unintentional—perhaps I'm just imagining it altogether.

Vol I: Noel

This was recorded in 2001, either right before (or during) Suf's collaboration with Daniel Smith on his folk opus Seven Swans. Consequently, this album is very guitar and banjo-focused, and the wind instruments which distinguished Suf's more famous state-themed albums are almost completely absent. Matt Morgan contributes guitars and vocals on almost every track.

It seems that Sufjan hadn't quite warmed up to the task he'd set before himself, seeing how only three of the seven tracks are traditional Christmas songs—the remaining four tracks are original songs, or traditional non-Christmas hymns.

It's good stuff, but rather melancholic.

"Silent Night": A brief instrumental interlude, probably because Suf hates the song.

"O Come O Come Emmanuel": The recorder on this track is the only wind instrument on the entire disc.

"We're Going to the Country!": The first of many original compositions. Not bad, but nothing special; it's just sort of there.

"Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming": A very pretty rendition of a good hymn.

"It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!": Hey, it's finally something upbeat! And I can't tell if he's being serious or facetious! Happiness is mandatory, children! Santa is coming so smile, dammit! La la la la la la la la la laaaaaaaaaaaaa!

"Holy, Holy, etc.": Oh, Suf, you card.That isn't the title. It isn't even a Christmas song. But it's an interlude, so who cares.

"Amazing Grace": Hey, this isn't a Christmas song either! But it's lovely.

Vol II: Hark!

Recorded in 2002. I believe Suf had begun work on Michigan by this point, so many traces of that album's style are evident here. Bells and woodwinds, guest performances by Vito and Monique Aiuto, and a (for the most part) happier sound.

"Angels We Have Heard on High": An instrumental version performed entirely on bells. In fact, it's exactly the same style as a few interlude tracks from Michigan. It's rather lovely.

"Put the Lights on the Tree": This is interesting. When the Songs For Christmas discs originally leaked to the internet, this tracks was a rather low-key, electric-piano-focused song. Then when the boxed set was released in 2006, Sufjan remixed this track, and this track alone, adding the manic woodwinds and making the drums louder. I'm not sure if the woodwinds make the song happier, or it makes it sound like someone is trying to put a happy face on, even though they're in the dumps.

I like both versions.

"Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing": Another folky rendition of a not-Christmas hymn (what, are we back in disc 1?). Unless the line "Here I raise my Ebenezer" is a roundabout reference to A Christmas Carol. (As an aside, Dickens must have intended it as irony to give Scrooge the Hebrew word for "rock of help" as a first name .)

"I Saw Three Ships": A rather insubstantial traditional song, but the woodwinds and snare drums make it catchy and worthwhile.

"Only at Christmas Time": A nice, contemplative piece.

"Once in Royal David's City": Starts off as a quirky folk-thing, with banjo playing over a synth rhythm, but the woodwinds propel the song into a suitably epic sound.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" Who would name an angelic herald "Hark"? Oh, wait. Nevermind.

I think Suf missed an opportunity by not moving this track to the end of the disc. Book-Ends.

"What Child is This Anyway?" Sometimes Sufjan gives songs misleading titles. This is one of those times.

I said before that the best "style" for covering this song in would be one that coneys a mood of holy terror. Sufjan does exactly that. Piano, banjo, electric guitar solos barely shy of being noise, anguished moaning over the outro.

"Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella": Quiet and peaceful; a chance to recover one's nerve after the gut-punch of the prior track.

This one was phoned in. Literally. Vito sang and played guitar over a phone.

Vol III: Ding Dong!

Recorded in 2003. Michigan had definitely been released by this point; this disc continues the style from that album and from the last Christmas disc, only this time, there's a little bit more of an undercurrent of sadness.

The Aiutos return for guest musician duties, and they're joined by Colin Stevens, Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) and Denison Witmer.

"O Come, O Come Emmanuel": Yes, this song again. It's interesting to trace the progression of versions of this song over the years. It was slightly melancholic before; here, performed on a piano, it sounds even more lonely.

"Come On! Let's Boogie to the Elf Dance!": The lyrics and music capture perfectly the way Christmas seemed to me when I was younger. It's bouncy and manic and sugar-filled, and mixes mundane details like the closing of K-Mart with musings on Baby Jesus and Santa Claus in a rather endearing manner.

Skip this paragraph if you want to continue enjoying this song in a straightforward manner: I recall Suf stating in an interview that "Away in a Manger" was one of his least favorite Christmas hymns. His inclusion of the song here makes me think that he isn't celebrating the childlike view of Christmas, but mocking it.

"We Three Kings": I've only warmed up to the original hymn in recent years, but I can say now that the chorus is lovely. Suf's version is pretty nice, but it's really just a prelude to...

"O Holy Night": Yes. Suf uses a great hymn as an example of his mastery of stringing the listener along. The song slowly builds, until reaching a crescendo of woodwinds and drums in the second chorus. Glorious.

"That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!": Some people say this is a Tear Jerker. I don't really feel it. The instruments sound more melancholic ( la the material from Disc 1) than outright sad, and the lyrics are too vague really affect me.

If you read "Christmas Tube Socks" you would know that the line about throwing gifts in the woodstove is something that actually happened.

"Ding Dong!": When Songs for Christmas originally leaked to the 'net, this track and the one that followed had their titles switched somehow.

"All the King's Horns": Another original composition, and another fine example of That Creepy Christmas Feeling.

A closer examination of the lyrics reveals nothing to suggest this to me, but for some reason I keep thinking that this is about Mary and Joseph fleeing from Herod.

"The Friendly Beasts": For some reason, I thought Suf wrote this song, but the liner notes say this is a traditional French carol.

Lyrically, this is pure fluff, but the instrumental and vocal arrangements give the song some weight, and serves as some nice closure for this disc.

For the record, here are the vocal parts:
  • Narrator: Sufjan
  • Donkey: Denison Witmer
  • Cow: Laura Meyers
  • Sheep: Shara Worden
  • Doves: the Aiutos

Vol IV: Joy

Recorded in 2005—astute readers will note that 2004 was skipped, and this was because Suf was busy with a little album called Illinois that year. Maybe he was burned out on the 50 States sound, because there's no woodwinds or other crazy instruments on this album, just electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, and keys.

I wonder if the title is supposed to be ironic, because this album plunges right back into melancholy. The selection of traditionals includes some of Suf's most-hated Christmas songs (included for masochistic purposes, I suppose), and the selection of original tunes includes (in my opinion) the single most nerve-wracking track on this entire box set.

The only musical guest on this go-round is vocalist Bridget DeCook.

"The Little Drummer Boy": I don't remember if Suf likes this song or not. I do recall that surveys frequently rank this song as among the most-hated of all Christmas songs, so I'm going to say that this is one of the aforementioned songs included for masochism.

Whoever was transcribing lyrics and guitar chords for the liner notes wonders at this point, "How many pa rum pum pum pums does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"

"Away in a Manger": I do recall Suf saying that he really disliked this song. This version is suitably sappy.

"Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!": Perhaps the happiest song on this disc, and the closest Sufjan ever come to rocking anyone's face off.

"The First Noel": Another interlude.

"Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)": If the exclamation mark makes you think this is going to be at all lighthearted, consider yourself disabused of that notion. It's a marital spat; the lyrics don't seem like much on paper, but the delivery and instrumentation makes it clear that passive-aggression is seething just below the surface.

"The Incarnation": As before, Suf offers respite after a punch in the gut.

"Joy to the World": Another song that I recall Suf saying he particularly disliked. But his version is rather more low-key than most.

Vol V: Peace

And this is the crown of the entire box set. Recorded in June 2006, after Suf had not only completed Illinois, but had completed an entire second album of outtakes from Illinois. He said in an interview that he was tired of that particular sound, and it really shows here. He takes the bombastic, big-band approach to songwriting, but almost completely strips away the folk influences, resulting in the closest Suf has ever come to writing a pure pop album. A pure pop album that will wreck you emotionally, if you let it.

Suf is backed by James McAlister on drums, CJ Camieri and Ben Lanz on brass, Marla Hansen on vocals, and the Osso string quartet.

"Once in Royal David's City": An all-piano rendition to serve as the intro. The liner notes point out that the pianos are out-of-tune.

"Get Behind Me, Santa!": Best title for a Christmas song, ever—and the music to match. This is Sufjan at his absolute coolest and catchiest: the horns are funky, the electric organ is fast and furious, the choruses are sing-a-long worthy, and the lyrics feature nuggets like:
Take it easy, why you gotta be so absurd? You make it sound like Christmas is a four-letter word.
You've got it wrong, cause I'm just another regular guy with superpowers and a penchant for the Yuletide.

"Jingle Bells": Another brief piano interlude. The liner notes specify that these were "more insipid pianos"

"Christmas in July": A slightly more mellow song. Reminds me of "Chicago", actually.

"Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming": Yet another piano interlude. The liner notes specify that the pianos were "played very earnestly".

"Jupiter Winter": This is just beautiful. The tune is slow and repetitive, but the vocal, string and brass arrangements make it pure ear candy.

"Sister Winter": It begins. I'm not going to lie: these next few songs brought tears to my eyes the first few times I listened to them, and to this day they still can, if the mood is right. Where the rest of this LB was more-or-less me transcribing thoughts as I listened to the songs, I can't do that for these: I have no choice but to give the songs my full attention and write my thoughts after the fact.

This is a song about seasonal depression. The guitar and piano during the verses sound bleak, then the strings right after the chorus sound almost maudlin in their sadness. If that were all there were to the song, it would be carp, but no. Suf adds more electric guitars, and then the chorus gives way to a higher-pitched wailing, and the refrain "Oh, my friends, I return to wish you all the best" builds and builds until it crescendoes with those horns and that awesome drumroll, and at that point I'm completely disarmed.

But we've only just begun.

"O Come O Come Emmanuel": A third version of the hymn, demonstrating just how far we've come. This is the only piano interlude in disc 5 where the liner notes don't make some sarcastic remark about the quality of the playing. This version of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is much more forlorn and bleak than either of the prior versions in the box set. This is loneliness, and a Bible-black night sky with not a single star visible.

This song could have been a respite after the emotional wringer of "Sister Winter", but instead I end up needing a respite after this respite.

"Star of Wonder": But a respite is not what we get. Instead, we catch a glimpse of God, a bewildering vision of the Divine touching down for a brief visit.

Sufjan employs more of that post-rock, trance-inducing repetition than anywhere else on the box set. During the refrain, the horns come in at exactly the same moment that most of the drums cut out, so the song doesn't crescendo; it simply soars into the upper atmosphere where it slowly disappears from sight and hearing, and I'm left with heart pounding and lungs gasping for breath, wondering what just happened.


"Holy, Holy, Holy": The only proper response is worship, really.

In this life, visions (and for that matter, Christmastime) must end.

"The Winter Solstice": A very lovely instrumental piece, to carry us the rest of the way down the mountain.

I suspect that, this time next year, Sufjan will put out a second Songs for Christmas box set. 2011 will have been five years, enough time for Vols. VI-X. I very eagerly look forward to that.

If you only listen to one EP, listen to: If you're more a fan of Suf's folky stuff, then Vol I is for you. If you're like me, and you prefer his multi-instrumental, bombastic music like "Chicago" or "Majesty, Snowbird", then you'll want Vol V. If you want something in between, in the style of Michigan or Illinois, then Vol II or III is what you want.