All apologies to Bing Crosby and Boney M; their Christmas records will have to shuffle over to make room for Sufjan Stevens’ new five-volume, 59-track album, Silver & Gold. This is the second Christmas album from Stevens, who released Songs for Christmas back in 2006. That album had all the charm and banjo-picking simplicity of its cover art: a cheery, hand-drawn Christmas tree.
Silver & Gold abandons this rustic charm for something much darker and more complex. It is the Songs of Experience to the first album’s Songs of Innocence. Gone is the hand-drawn Christmas tree, replaced by a black background image of a stellar nebula and foreground filled with a crimson antique ornament, with a spiralling golden interior looking like it was either taken from Gustave Dore’s image of Dante’s beatific vision, or from a diagram in Grey’s Anatomy of the Human Body. Either analogy may be apt, for the album contains both innuendos and end-times aplenty.
This end-times nature of Silver & Gold is clearly a hold-over from Stevens’ previous record, The Age of Adz (2010), which was inspired by Royal Robertson’s apocalyptic artwork. The fit might seem odd on a Christmas album, but, as Stevens’ notes, this is a return to the traditional/medieval concept of Advent as dealing with the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some of the album’s most beautiful songs arise out of this eschatological approach, including “Justice Delivers its Gift” (which repeats the line, “Lord, come with fire”) and the haunting version of Charles Wesley’s “Idumea” (And am I born to die?), done a cappella in the Sacred Harp style.
This is not to say the whole album is doom and gloom. There’s a whole sleigh box full of upbeat seasonal favourites including “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “We Need a Little Christmas.” But Stevens often undercuts these songs by discordant background vocals or subtle lyrical modifications.
A clear example of this undercutting can be seen in “Joy to the World,” a track that appears on both Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold. On Songs, it is every bit the traditional favourite, composed — according to the liner notes — using “vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, mistletoe, sleigh bells, tambourine, and tidings of comfort & joy.” The track on Silver & Gold begins in much the same way, until its serenity is shattered by an electronica instrumental that alters the key from a D to a G flat. When the vocals return, they are “re-harmonized” (aka. Auto-Tuned, à la T-Pain) and followed by a refrain taken straight from Adz, “Boy! We can do much more together!/ It’s not so impossible!”
If this sounds like it is a deliberate attempt to upend Christmas music as we know it, that’s because it is. “Have I ruined Christmas for you?” Stevens repeatedly asks in one of the songbook’s three essays (yes, there are essays!), entitled An Examination of the Christmas Tree Fetish. “In a word,” the essay continues, “the Christmas tree is our bitch. Pardon my language, but the social and ecological implications are tragic. The proliferation of the Christmas tree (with its correspondence to industrialism and corporate greed) … follows an inverse correlation to the decline of the natural world. This is no unhappy accident.” Neither is Stevens’ use of Auto-Tuning, word-adding, or over-the-top graphic design.
This is pop art at its finest. Everything from the album art to the lyrics of Stevens’ original songs playfully engages with the mass culture of Christmas. Stevens embodies this mass culture in the image of the Christmas Unicorn, itself a mix of “Christian holiday” and “pagan heresy.” “Oh I’m hysterically American,” the song continues, “I’ve a credit card on my wrist / And I have no home nor field to roam / I will curse you with my kiss.” Holiday slogans, caricatures, and phony advertisements are all humorously combined in the collages that cover the printed material, including gems like “Pimp my Christ-mess” and “Snow Cone Madness in the Ozarks of Arkansas.”
By utilizing pop art, this album isn’t just making a statement about Christmas. It it making a statement about the entire Western music industry. Silver & Gold is a condemnation of the commercialism and falsity that the music industry has come to embody. And Stevens recognizes that Christmas songs, because of their once-sacred nature, are the perfect symbol of this fall.
“One of the season’s most corrupted currencies is the Christmas song,” he writes. “For sure, we may be obliviously placated by their rosy-cosy, bubble-gum powers of suggestion resonating through shopping malls and grocery stores, but behind the iron curtain of Christmas music resides a vast network of publishers an lawyers leveraging the great fortunes of their intellectual property, as is their job description.”
Silver & Gold presents the antithesis to the music industry’s “iron curtain.” Instead of skimping on production costs, the packaging is extravagant — the box contains not only the five discs, each in their own sleeves, but a fold-out poster, temporary tattoos, a cut-out star ornament, a set of stickers, and an 84-page songbook with the full lyrics and chords to every song on the album. What’s more, Stevens is releasing every original song on the album into the Public Domain, in an attempt to move the music industry toward “a more democratic, collaborative, and cooperative ethos.”
It’s that kind of attitude that makes Silver & Gold, with all of its silliness, and sometimes its unpleasantness, a valuable listen. When the album comes to a close with a startling sample from Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it sounds the death knell of the Christmas album as we know it. For most listeners, this will be a good thing, although it might mean poor Bing will have to shuffle a little farther into the corner. Diehard Christmas traditionalists should avoid this album at all costs.
Adam Kroeker is a writer from Winnipeg, and plays music with The Mariachi Ghost. He is the co-editor of In Days to Come: Words for Advent. Follow him on Twitter @wildadamkroeker