The cover of Silver & Gold, the second (!) collection of five EPs of Christmas music from Sufjan Stevens, features a kaleidoscopically designed Christmas ornament set against a backdrop of outer space, with the name of the artist and album surrounding it in a typeface that would make Styx proud. This seems wholly appropriate for this particular record. Whereas the last Christmas record, Songs For Christmas, had a simple crayon-drawn Christmas tree on its cover and was made up of material that had been recorded from the beginning of Stevens’ career to 2006, Silver & Gold covers the ground after, and that ground has been decidedly more fitted to Silver & Gold‘s opening image. Since 2006, Stevens has scored a highway, given dissonant electronics a prominent seat at the table, and decided to once and for all to put to bed the “state project” he initially gained exposure for. In 2006, we knew who Sufjan Stevens was as a musician. In 2012, we’re not so sure.
Silver & Gold traverses the same path. Everything you hear on this latest Christmas record will sound familiar if you’ve been keeping up with Stevens’ career over the past six years. The arrangements cover the Sufjanian gamut from simple, sparse ditties (“Silent Night”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”) to immaculately arranged, homespun epics (“Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree)”, most of “The Child with the Star on his Head”), to electronic dalliances that play to his strengths (“Do You Hear What I Hear”, “Joy to the World”), and to electronics that don’t work quite as well (“Up on the Housetop”, the rest of “The Child with the Star on his Head”). Even if the vast majority of these tracks weren’t Christmas songs that you already knew, even if some of them weren’t already new arrangements of tracks Stevens already covered on his last Christmas album, or weren’t songs that show up multiple times on Silver & Gold, they’d still feel warm and comfortable for Stevens fans. The man’s songwriting, voice, and sense of melody are too singular to be confused for anyone else.
This is good because Stevens is a talented songwriter and musician who knows that sometimes the best addition is by subtraction — he’s as likely to limit his instrumental palette to a single acoustic guitar as he is to bring in an entire orchestra. The drawback to that familiarity is the fact that nothing on any of these EPs is going to surprise and blow your hair back the way your first listen to Illinois did, and the tacks Stevens used on the more experimental The BQE and The Age of Adz won’t pack the same punch.
Stevens seems to know this. And, to be fair, there are moments that aren’t Sufjan-by-numbers. They typically fall into two categories: songs that are simple embellishments of traditional source material, or tracks that intentionally throw curve balls at every opportunity. Often, Stevens throws his weirdest tricks at the songs you’re going to be most familiar with, like the cacophonous and almost unlistenable versions of “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.These and other messy tracks come off more as dissonance and contrarianism for its own sake, rather than takes on these songs that the listening public needed. If the best covers use the artist’s aesthetic to reveal something new about the source material, some of these intentionally tossed aside renditions reveal only Stevens saying, “Well fuck it.” On the other hand, when Stevens adheres to closely to the melodies and arrangements of his covered songs, they’re stale or lifeless, with only the sheer number of participants to buoy them.
It’s a bit unfair to hold up a collection of EPs like this, ones originally intended for limited release among family and friends, as fully-formed releases. It’s not hard to imagine a group of Stevens’ friends listening to the Velvet Underground caricature of “Mr. Frosty Man” and getting a kick out of it, but it is harder to imagine a casual Stevens fan listening and hearing anything but silly self-indulgence.
That’s why the best songs on Silver & Gold are the ones that both display Stevens’ unique touch and seem most reverent toward their source material: the opening Michigan-esque finger pickings on “Silent Night”, the several affectionate takes on “Ah Holy Jesus”, and the rich “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. These are the tracks that discover Stevens both trying to expand and refine his own talents while also paying homage to the songs themselves.
Even on the original songs on Silver & Gold this rarely seems to be the case, which makes the moments where that does happen both more rewarding and frustrating. You can’t help but wonder what Stevens could do with a more concise and serious take on a Christmas album, given how tailored his aesthetic seems to be to the material. Instead, we’re given a playful, fun, but ultimately unrewarding compilation for anyone other than completionists.
Essential Tracks: “Silent Night”, “Ah Holy Jesus”, and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”