What makes a great Christmas present great is its spirit and its trappings — if the gift itself is any good, it’s really just a bonus. Such is the case with Sufjan Stevens’ “Songs for Christmas.” This collection of 42 holiday songs is such a winning package that the quality of the music is almost beside the point.
“Songs for Christmas” compiles five of the discs that Stevens has recorded annually as holiday gifts for his friends. The EP-length albums — “Noel,” “Hark!,” “Ding! Dong!,” “Joy” and “Peace” — all have an air of scrappy familiarity, interweaving goofy singalongs with spectral instrumentals. Also included in the boxed set are comics, stickers, chord charts, an essay by Rick Moody and a really great poster of Sufjan wearing a Santa hat and looking stern, surrounded by an apparently random family.
The albums include both Christmas standards and Sufjan originals, and the combination succeeds to varying degrees. New Christmas songs are always a dicey proposition, since so much of the effect of seasonal music depends on tradition — it’s Pavlovian sentimentality. None of Stevens’ songs muster real Christmas-music staying power; they’re just a Sufjan snack to tide you over until his next offering. The original tracks are rife with oddball snapshots, vivid but inconclusive lines like, “Mistletoe hangs / Up in the bedroom / Your sister’s bangs / She cut them herself” on the track “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” The covers of traditional songs, though, yield stronger results. “O Holy Night” (found on the third disc) is a particular standout, shifting persuasively from sweetness to urgency over the song’s course.
Christmas makes ideal fodder for Stevens’ folk-pop orchestrations. “Illinois” — his most recent effort — may have been released in July of 2005, but it always felt like perfect winter music, alternately bleak and jolly, equal parts gray sky and twinkling colored lights. Applying his sound to Christmas songs is a natural move. The holiday also gives Stevens an audience-friendly way to openly address his Christian faith, which has often been present but rarely explicit in his music.
At first blush, the five disks seem like an overwhelming bounty of material, but brevity is never the point with Stevens. Given his professed plans to journey across the country in song, a road trip seems an appropriate metaphor for his work — and when Sufjan is behind the wheel, he unfailingly takes the scenic route. Stevens is constantly directing his audience’s attention to some charming detail that might have escaped their notice, some roadside vista or tourist dive. Hence the chiming waterfalls of “Greetings from Michigan” and tracks like “Let’s Hear That String Part One More Time, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell” on “Illinois.” And while these meanderings might seem unnecessary at first, more often than not they reveal themselves to be indispensable. The two-plus hours of “Songs for Christmas” are no exception.
After all, it’s hard to get exasperated with Stevens when you get the sense that his wildly large-scale undertakings are inspired more by a whole-hearted, expansive generosity than by ambition. Why release one album about your home state when you could release 50 albums, one about everyone’s home state? And why make one Christmas record for your friends when you could make five?
The worst that can be said of “Songs of Christmas” is that it sounds exactly as you’d expect it to. In a May interview with Pitchfork, Stevens claimed he was getting sick of his sound — as he put it, “I’m getting tired of my voice. I’m getting tired of … the banjo. I’m getting tired of … the trumpet.” For listeners who agree, “Songs for Christmas” will be a bit much. If you can’t stomach another bright trumpet accent or banjo solo, the album’s five disks will be arduous.
Really, though, is Christmas the time for experimentation and reinvention? Leave that for New Year’s, for the rest of the year, for any other time. Cozy familiarity is what the season demands, and Stevens delivers.
Songs for Christmas