As Sufjan Stevens proves with Silver & Gold, his five-EP sequel to 2006’s Songs for Christmas, there’s a clear distinction between a “holiday album” and a “Christmas album.” Holiday albums are virtually all artifice—gift-wrapped, commercialized bundles of faux-cheer. Christmas albums—or, at least, Christmas albums as performed by Sufjan Stevens—are more intriguing and altogether weirder: exploring the holiday’s extreme contradictions through both Christian and secular lenses. In all its virgin births and snowmen and prayer and corporate greed, Christmas remains a genuine mess. And who better to tackle the world’s most complicated holy day than Sufjan Stevens, a Christian man playing largely secular music built on extreme sonic juxtapositions, ranging from heartbreaking folk meditations to large-scale symphonies to dorky electro-pop?
Silver & Gold is much more than just a collection of songs. Its lavish, 80-page booklet is filled with breathless essays (Sufjan’s diatribe on the symbolism of Christmas trees, an apocalyptic and slightly chilling reflection on “Advent & The End Times” by Pastor Thomas Vitp Aituo), and, of course, the collection comes with a foldable star ornament, poster, and creepy temporary tattoos (sample images: a skeleton wielding an axe with the caption “Here’s Santa,” a gangsta snowman armed with a chainsaw, pandas wearing tacky Christmas sweaters, and an odd-looking Jesus bearing the slogan “Blowin’ Your Mind!”). The function of all this intentional tackiness is unclear: A goofy reflection of Christmas’ pimped-out corporate absurdity? A surrealist collage for the sake of surrealist collage?
Whatever it is, it’s a typical Sufjan spectacle. And the music, spread across five disparate EPs, is equal parts clusterfuck. Volume 6, 2006’s Gloria, is the most traditional group of songs in the bunch: Recorded and arranged with assistance from The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, it carries on in the tradition of 2005’s Illinois—and in a way, it’s so quintessentially Sufjan (with its ornate fickerpicking and choral counterpoint), it’s a tad overly familiar. Nonetheless, its highlights—like the complex, layered “The Midnight Clear” and the epic ballad “Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree”)—transcend their holiday contexts and emerge as worthy additions to any traditional Sufjan album. In contrast, Volume 7: I Am Santa’s Helper, is ugly, erratic and pointless—arguably the most skippable batch of songs in this prolific songwriter’s sprawling catalog. There are 23 tracks total, and most are jarring interludes. Even the most fleshed-out track here—the by-numbers orchestral-pop of “Christmas Woman”—is filled with disconnected vocal harmonies, out-of-tune recorder lines, and ironic distortion. (Side note: the whole “intentionally noisy/disgusting guitar solo thing isn’t cool.) If you choose to soundtrack your Yuletide festivities with the tuneless racket of “Mr. Frosty Man” or the obnoxious “Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling,” (in which Sufjan proclaims “Baby Jesus is the King!” over ham-fisted distortion and childlike chirping), well…enjoy yourself. Overall, the voice of these songs is mocking—or, even worse, purely gimmicky.
But Silver & Gold’s final trio of EPs are actually outstanding. Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage, is without question the best collection of songs here, building on the synth-and-electronics-heavy template of 2010’s Age of Adz—and often besting it. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is transformed into a mind-numbing, nine-minute masterpiece of batshit programmed drums and heavily filtered vocals; “Christmas in the Room” works brilliantly both as a Christmas song and a straight love song: “I’ll dance with you, I’ll laugh with you,” Sufjan sings, as intimate acoustic flourishes are augmented by glitchy electronics.
Let it Snow and Christmas Unicorn round out the collection by building on that EP’s momentum, though both are more loose and eclectic, touching on a bit of everything Sufjan does well: There’s a goofy, long-winded cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (complete with a gorgeous instrumental coda), a minor-key take on “Let it Snow,” and a towering original called “Christmas Unicorn” that twists through endless sonic peaks and valleys, even borrowing lyrics from Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
All in all, in spite of its occasional predictability and its many lapses into gleeful stupidity, Silver & Gold adds up to way more than just a bells-and-whistles holiday album. It’s an ugly, beautiful, totally fascinating Christmas album, made by the only artist crazy enough to tackle the season in all its sprawling absurdity.