When I heard that Sufjan Stevens had a new Christmas album, the obvious question was “Why?” It was just 2008 when he put out Songs for Christmas, a collection of 42 songs. And ok, sure, Songs for Christmas was put together over a few years, but still, who does two Christmas albums? And who would do two so close together? Well, Silver and Gold has a whopping 58 tracks, some serious, some a little quirky, and some entirely bizarre. There are traditional Christmas carols, some Advent hymns, at least one Lenten hymn, some playful electro-folk, and a bit of plain noise.
As I began listening to Silver and Gold, I had a few more questions. First, while I love the hymn Ah Holy Jesus, it isn’t a Christmas song at all. Rather, it’s about the death of Christ. What was it doing on this Christmas album, and in three versions at that? Also, there are a lot of Advent themes– “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates” and “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee” are traditional Advent hymns. It even seems that Sufjan has written at least two specifically Advent-aimed songs, “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way” and “Justice Delivers Its Death.” For those who are not familiar with the distinction between Advent and Christmas, Advent is the penitential season in the Church calendar just prior to Christmas. Rather than being jolly, it stresses the judgment associated with Christ’s coming, both his first and second coming. And so Advent songs are often about the end of the world, the final judgment, and Jesus returning cosmic order and righteousness to the universe. What’s striking is that Advent and its music are typically somber, a stark contrast to what most people think of as “Christmas music.” Obviously Sufjan is doing all this on purpose, and so the question is, “What’s he up to?”
There’s also the perennial question I have regarding Sufjan’s more electronic work: “Is this actually good music?” I was pretty disappointed with The Age of Adz album, and I joked on facebook that the only way to listen to Silver and Gold is to make a playlist and remove all of the fully electronic songs. Frankly, they just sound like a bunch of noise. And what is the deal with “Christmas Unicorn”? It’s a 12+ minute cacophony of ridiculousness. A Christmas Unicorn, after all… what’s the deal with that? Given Sufjan’s artistry– and anyone who has been paying attention to his work knows that he is very deliberate and very subtle– we have to assume that he actually does mean something by these things. He’s not just goofing around, even if the product is sometimes goofy.
Brett McCracken has a helpful review of Sufjan in concert here, noting the performance-art nature of Sufjan’s music and his concert. McCracken mentions the dual nature of Sufjan’s music and “camp.” Some things are meant to have a particular meaning, and other things are inserted just to be quirky and odd, to be interpreted or not. This is how McCracken interprets the “Christmas Unicorn”:
Beneath the glitter, foil costumes, synth, and quirky preciousness, the song tries to capture a kernel of truth about Christmas–namely that it has become something of a hot mess of commercialization, sentimentality and religio-cultural-fantastical pastiche.
McCracken concludes that Sufjan uses the “camp” imagery and irony (we’ll spare you the ubiquitous foray into the meaning of hipsterism at this point) in order to get through his audience’s emotional and intellectual guards so that he can then deliver the serious and the sacred:
And yet Sufjan earns the right to be sincere about these things. Millenials won’t just listen to anyone singing old hymns and religious carols, inviting them to sing along at an indie rock show. Sufjan pays his ironic dues by packaging earnest, tender narratives in the wrapping paper of DIY whimsy, vintage/nostalgia and Brooklyn-approved indie pop art.
I think this is right. In fact, the more one looks at the imagery and reads the odd little essays on Sufjan’s website, the more obvious this becomes. After all, it is Captain America who is baptizing this decadent Christmas Party.
There’s also a description of the album on Sufjan’s website, telling you what exactly it is:
This is the true horror-show catharsis of Christmas: the existential emptiness that perseveres in the heart of modern man as he recklessly pursues his search for happiness and comes up empty handed.
And yet, against all odds, we continue to sing our songs of Christmas. If Christmas is the holiday of “worst case scenarios” then its carol has become its most corrupted currency, intoning rhapsody and romance with mistletoe and Marshmallow Fluff, placating the public with indelible melodies propagating a message of peace, love, and venture capitalism…
Who can save us from the infidels of Christmas commodity? Look no further, tired shopper, for your hero arrives as the diligent songwriter Sufjan Stevens: army of one, banjo in one hand, drum machine in the other, holed up in his room, surrounded by hymnals, oratorios, music charts, sacred harp books, photo-copied Readers Digest Christmas catalogs—all the weaponry of Yuletide incantations—singing his barbaric yawp above the snow-capped rooftops.
His song is love; his song is hope; his song is peace. His song conjures the fruitcake world of his own imagination with steadfast pursuit of the inexplicable bliss of Christmas Promises—“Gloria in excelsis deo”—summoning the company of angels, the helper elves, the shepherds keeping flock, the innkeepers, the coupon-clippers, the marathon runners, the cross-country skiers, the bottom feeders, the grocery store baggers, the bridge and tunnel drivers, the construction workers, the ice cream makers, the toll booth workers, the street sweepers, the single mothers, the custodians, the rich and the poor, the walking dead, the community of saints, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, the Prince of Persia, and all the invisible hosts of heaven to participate in this absurd cosmic adventure, pursuing holly-jolly songs of hope and redemption with a sacred heart for the love of the holidays, for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Sure, this is capable of being read as itself ironic, over-the-top, and tongue-in-cheek. But it’s also capable of being read as sincere and, actually, an accurate description.
In the comments below McCracken’s post, Alastair Roberts points us to this interview with Sufjan associate (and Presbyterian minister) Vito Aiuto. In the interview, Aiuto is asked about irony, and his answer reveals not only intentionality but a competent awareness of how and why he, and I believe Sufjan, are using it:
There’s an essay by David Foster Wallace called Television and U.S. Fiction. It’s about how he thinks that irony is destroying fiction and has almost destroyed art in the West. It’s decimating it and has made a wreckage of our ability to interact with art. And at the end, he basically says, ‘Well, I think the next thing is going to have to be sincerity.’ And he says that it’s basically going to have to be a sincerity that goes through irony. Because you just can’t do sincerity anymore because it’s already kind of been ruined. So you have to pick the flower up off the floor and do something with it even though it’s been stepped on. You can’t find something that hasn’t been sullied by irony.
…I think this is true of a lot of people; I’m really tired of irony. I’m tired of sarcasm. I’m tired of interacting with my friends, where we make fun of each other to show each other that we love each other. I’m totally scarred by that. I’m tired of it and I don’t want to do it. I really just want to make music that’s really honest and is almost embarrassingly sincere.
And so it would seem that Sufjan is himself well aware of the fatigue that some of his more quirky elements can cause. If the above reading is correct, then Sufjan is purposely sending this message, offering up the quieter songs as the needed relief. All those songs about Advent are meant to remind us of the message of divine judgment, both as it regards justice and equity and as it regards wrath. The album is thus a sort of prophetic critique and an invitation to find rest.
Of course, not everyone has to like Sufjan’s music. I still maintain that most of the electronic tracks are not, in fact, good music. But I do think we should ask ourselves whether or not the message and the method aren’t being appropriately and effectively communicated, precisely in fact. And when you compare it with those classic Christmas songs of America’s “good ol’ days” –you know, the ones about toys, hopalong boots, family, home, snow, and the purest song being the abstract universal love that dwells in every human heart– well, Who sounds the more Biblical?
Which genre actually reminds us of the “reason for the season”?