Yuletide’s indiest champion roasts us a darker chestnut this year, but it’s full of freaky festive flavour
Sufjan Stevens really likes Christmas. The Michigan maestro’s obsession with all things Yuletide has now spawned 100-odd songs and two collections, the last of which – 2006’s ‘Songs For Christmas’, has become as much a staple of any hipster’s festive listening as Bright Eyes’ ‘A Christmas Album’ and Low’s ‘Christmas’. This follow-up sees Sufjan’s festive fascination darken. “Advent is ultimately about death. The end is near. You are going to die. Happy Holidays,” read the liner notes.
Last time we heard from Stevens was on the chaotic future-pop thrum of 2010’s ‘The Age of Adz,’ an album so disorientating and intense it was little surprise to hear the 37-year-old’s next move would be a return to the relative fun and simplicity of his Yuletide recordings. Echoes of that album linger here – in particular on the woozy electronics that turn ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ into a codeine-fucked Christmas trip and the haunting upset of sinister acoustic guitar ballad ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’. The darkness that gripped Stevens during his last outing seems to be still tugging at his heels.
But compelling as those moments are, more fun are the tracks where he puts his expansive imagination to use and lets go a little – ‘Christmas Unicorn’ for instance, which, as batshit insane as it is irresistibly infectious, opens out into a 12-minute tangle of drum-machine noises, symphonic flourishes and luminous synth melodies like a knot of tree-lights going haywire, before morphing into a cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Elsewhere, The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner turn up to cast their spell over ‘Gloria’, while ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ counts not just among Stevens’ best Christmas songs, but his best songs full-stop.
In a career of constant reinvention that has seen him dally with folk, throbbing electronica and experimental future-pop, Stevens’ fixation with Christmas has been one of two constants – the other being the unerring brilliance of his output (not counting his 2010 misstep, the ‘All Delighted People’ EP). Accompanying this release is a lengthy essay that attacks the concept of Christmas trees: “The Christmas tree has become nothing more than a symbol of environmental bondage,” Stevens writes. “In a word, the Christmas tree is our bitch.” And so long as he’s making music this magical, if not entirely merry, we’re all Stevens’ slaves.