Review: Sufjan Stevens Presents ‘Songs for Christmas’*

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ONE love, blood, life
Sep 22, 2001
new york city
By Kevin Selders

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, rising indie-folk artist Sufjan Stevens felt compelled to spend December of that year recording a few Christmas songs in his Brooklyn home. The process reportedly gave him a sense of peace in his heart when peace on Earth seemed more impossible than ever.

He gave the recordings to family and friends as gifts that year, knowing that music—especially Christmas music—can add hope and wonder to the lives of those in need of such things. The gift of song then became a Christmas tradition for Stevens, resulting in five “Songs for Christmas” EPs in six years. (The year 2004 was devoted to the breathtaking album, “Illinois.”)

This year, the EPs have proven to be gifts that keep on giving (maybe even more so than Clark W. Griswold’s membership in the Jelly of the Month club), as Stevens has chosen to release the recordings as five separate EPs in a box set simply called “Songs for Christmas.”

As a whole, the collection’s five discs mix the sacred with the secular—with both territories being covered by Sufjan-ized Christmas classics and originals by the man himself. Some of the classics remain that way as Stevens adds his touch to them (be it either with banjo or an oboe), while others end up being moving instrumental snippets of long time Christmas favorites.

The discs, titled “Noel,” “Hark!,” “Ding! Dong!,” “Joy,” and “”Peace,” seem to gain focus after each disc played.

His covers of the “hits” include a rousing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” a festive “I Saw Three Ships,” and a playful rendition of the traditional French carol, “The Friendly Beasts.” His version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” will be perfect to play while resting on the couch after opening all of Santa’s gifts to quietly remember what Christmas is really about.

Sometimes Stevens falls a bit short, however. “We Three Kings,” plods along, lacking the proper emotional sway of many renditions of the tune. “Jingle Bells” is reduced to a 36 second instrumental. (Think of the possibilities, Sufjan!) Thankfully, Stevens’ epic version of “O Holy Night,” is much, much better than that “O, Holy Crap” floating around on the Internet.


His 17 original songs range from the quirky “Put the Lights on the Tree,” to the very Wilco-like “Get Behind Me, Santa!,” which calls out Ol’ Saint Nick for “breaking into people’s garages.” “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” is a Stevens special that you’ll swear you had to sing in a Christmas skit during your youth, while “Sister Winter” captures both the bitter cold and sorrow too often felt near the end of the year. It finally joyfully proclaims, “And my friends, I’ve returned to wish you a Happy Christmas.”

The cosmic soundscape of “Star of Wonder” suddenly makes you feel like you’re fighting to see the twinkling stars through your own frosty breath. (For all you U2 fans—the song curiously ends with Stevens sighing, “Those days, days, days run away like horses over the hills . . .”)

One of the best songs on the album is Stevens’ “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” It could easily be added to either of his “Illinois” or “Michigan” albums. “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)” will also keep the collection in the CD player months after this year’s Christmas becomes a thing of the past.

The packaging for the collection presents its own mini Christmas (Tip: Buy it in a store, not on iTunes), it adds to the value of the under-priced assortment of songs ($19). Along with the individually packaged EPs, it includes short stories written by Stevens himself, an original Christmas essay by novelist Rick Moody, a 1960s-esque animated music video for “Put the Lights on the Tree” and comic strip, a songbook with lyrics and chord charts, stickers and a puzzling poster of Stevens posing in a Christmas portrait with a blow-up Santa doll and someone else’s family.

What more could you possibly ask Santa for?

For more information on Sufjan Stevens, please visit the official website. “Songs for Christmas” was released November 21st on Asthmatic Kitty.
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That bit from "Dirty Day" was nicked from Charles Bukowski, but not exactly. So yes, Sufjan is indeed quoting the U2 track.
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