Making Sense of Sufjan

Silver and GoldWhen 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?” Continue reading