Have you ever had a Christmas where you got the exact toy you wanted, but once you started playing with it, you were mostly disappointed? That is how I felt when I listened to the new Sufjan Stevens Christmas album, Silver and Gold. This is Stevens’ second Christmas album. The first, Songs for Christmas, has become a staple on my Christmas play list. The album is made up of songs Stevens had given to his family as gifts over the years. There are a few songs that are hard to listen to, but otherwise it is full of quirky, beautiful Christmas cheer. I cannot recommend it enough.
So I could barely contain my excitement when I heard that he was releasing a new, five-disc Christmas album. I put it on as soon as I could. But, alas, I felt let down. The album starts off where Songs for Christmas left off with a beautifully simple version of Silent Night. The first two discs are actually pretty good. Things start to fall apart, however, when you get to the third album low. Though he starts strong with a wonderful rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High, by the second song the presents fall out of the sleigh, so to speak. Do You See What I See? and Good King Wenceslas have the feel of a remixed video-game soundtrack. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear sounds like the Disney light parade crashed into a keyboard. Without trying to sound too harsh, The Child with the Star on His Head feels like a fifteen-minute train-wreck Christmas version of the Beatles Number 9. It was very hard to listen to, indeed.
For me personally, this album was just not very enjoyable. Sufjan is not one to do things the “normal” way. But this album just felt weird. Stevens likes to experiment with different sounds and technologies to enhance his music. For this he should be commended. Trying new things and pushing boundaries is what makes music interesting and fun. If you are a Sufjan fan and enjoy his experimentation, you may love this album. Though I can appreciate that perspective, this was just too over-the-top for my taste.
It is not all bad, though. In fact, he does something devotionally brilliant on the second disc that I would like draw our attention to. This album is full of hymns. Of course, the vast majority of them are Advent/Christmas hymns. (Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates sounds like it was recorded during a small congregation’s hymn-sing. Completely fantastic!) But, as you finish giggling at the drunken We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Stevens breaks into Ah Holy Jesus. A slow, haunting LENTEN hymn! In fact, he puts it in there three times! What in the world is he doing putting a hymn about the cross in the middle of our Christmas celebration?
Then it struck me: Sufjan Stevens gets it! He gets it better than the rest of us this time of year! We go overkill on the lights, the parties, the X-mas noise, and the kitsch. We put this fake wrapping on the season to try and cover up our sorrows and struggles. Stevens cuts through the nonsense and takes us right to the bloody cross of Jesus. After all, what we so soon forget is that the baby in the manger has come to die for our sins. Christmas is about the cross!
I find it wonderful that he puts this hymn in the album three times. It reminds me of Mark’s gospel where Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem when he announces to his disciples that he is going to be arrested, suffer, die, and rise on the third day (Mark 8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). The disciples are under the impression that once they get to Jerusalem, Jesus is going to conquer the Romans and Herod and take his throne like King David of old. But, he ruins the party by announcing his death. Peter rebukes him for this. You can imagine the conversation, “Come on Jesus, don’t be such a downer! This is going to be great! Why are you so negative?” But Christ rebukes Peter. He came to die for sinners. It is all about the cross.
If you choose to buy this album, I recommend that you put on the first two discs and have your hearts and minds directed to the cross of Christ. As we get all caught up in the wrapping and the carols, may we remember why this baby was born: to die. To die for you! His gift is His life for your sins, so that you can enter into eternal life free of disappointment, sorrow, pain, sin, and death. Rejoice this Christmas, not because of the wrappings, but because of the promise of salvation given to you from this incarnate, crucified Jesus! Merry Christmas!
-Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You from Christmases Past
-Ah Holy Jesus
-Angels We Have Heard on High