Archives For Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan ChristmasA couple weeks before Thanksgiving, Sufjan Stevens released the latest installment in his Christmas music dynasty. Many, many, many musicians create Christmas music. But no one does it like Sufjan.

For most people, Christmas music means Mariah Carey, Chris Tomlin, or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But Sufjan has a small army of devoted followers, and his Christmas contributions are no exception to this.

Several things set Sufjan’s approach to Christmas music apart. The first is the size of his projects. On November 14, Sufjan had released no fewer than 42 Christmas songs (collected in his album Songs for Christmas). On November 15, Sufjan added another 58 songs (the album is called Silver & Gold), taking his Christmas total to an even 100.

Another distinctive is the breadth of instrumentation and musical styles represented. As with most of his music, Sufjan goes nuts at Christmas time. You’ll hear songs created using only the recorder, songs shaped through digital instrumentation and manipulation, and songs traditionally crafted. You’ll hear oboes, banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, strings, flutes, synths, horns, bells, choirs, all forms of percussion, and just about any other instrument you’ve ever heard.

Sufjan Stevens' Christmas UnicornWhile many of these songs are very serious and sentimental, Sufjan’s Christmas albums are fun. He enjoys music, and he appears to enjoy Christmas, so his Christmas music comes together with an exploration of sound, themes, depth, and silliness that you won’t find elsewhere.

Aside from loving basically everything that Sufjan put out on Silver and Gold (not to mention everything he’s ever done), I was struck by the last song on the album: “Christmas Unicorn.” The song over 12 minutes long and carries an intriguing message about the nature of Christmas. As we would expect from Sufjan, the lyrics are simultaneously playful and deep, communicative and yet elusive (and allusive).

The song begins:

I’m a Christmas unicorn
In a uniform made of gold
With a billy goat beard
And a sorcerer’s shield
And mistletoe on my nose

We see from the first words that Sufjan is mixing categories that don’t appear to belong together. What has Christmas to do with unicorns? What do either of these have to do with billy goats and sorcerer’s shields? He continues:

Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin
Oh I’m a pagan heresy
I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy with a lazy eye
And a penchant for sublime
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy
I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite
People say I don’t exist

Category confusion. That seems to be what Sufjan is implying. Many of our Christian Christmas traditions do indeed have pagan roots. Sufjan sees these elements combined and highlights the oddity of a single holiday that manages to nod to each of these diverse traditions. He adds later:

Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home nor field to roam
I will curse you with my kiss
Oh I’m a criminal pathology
With a history of medical care
I’m frantic shopper and a brave pill popper
And they say my kind are rare

Now we have American consumerism, which results in the stress of frantic shopping, thrown into the mix. What are we to make of all of this? Sufjan’s unicorn explains:

For I make no full apology
For the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest
I’m a construct of your mind

Sufjan Jumbled ChristmasOur Christmas season is a jumbled mess of categories. So many sectors of our modern society look at the same holiday and see very different things. Is this good or bad? The song ends with the affirming refrain: “It’s alright! I love you!”

Sufjan’s view of Christmas is explained in the album’s artwork (which includes a fine essay about the eschatological connotations of the advent season by the protestant pastor Vito Aiuto (of The Welcome Wagon) and an essay on the meaning of the Christmas tree written by Sufjan himself). Why does Sufjan enjoy Christmas even with its jumble of traditions and connotations? I will quote a significant chunk of his answer because I think it can help all of us think through the Christmas season:

In spite of my best judgment, in spite of public opinion, in spite of common decency, in spite of seasonal affective disorder, mental disease and Christmas fatigue, I’ve continued the musical tradition (ever onward forever amen), in pursuing all the inexplicable songs of the holidays, season after season (without rhyme or reason), relentlessly humming, strumming, finger-picking, ivory-tickling, finger-licking, soul-searching, fact-finding, corporate ladder-climbing, magic hatter rabbit hiding, rapping, slapping, super-sizing, miming, grinding, flexing, perplexing, plucking and strumming all the celestial strings of merriment with utmost Napoleonic fever. This tradition will not die.

What is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate my aging heartstrings? Is it the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen? Or the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, subverted, confounded, expounded, adopted and adapted with no regard for decency. Christ­mas is what you make of it, and its songs reflect mystery and magic as expertly as they clatter and clang with the most audacious and rambunctious intonations of irrever­ence. And all its silly-putty, slippery-slope, slap-dash menagerie of subject matter (be it Baby Jesus or Babes in Toyland) readily yields itself to the impudent whims of its contemporary benefactors, myself included.

Though Jesus is who he is, and his birth signifies what it signifies, Sufjan is right to point out that the Christmas season is what we make of it. Some choose to ignore Jesus at Christmas, and that’s their prerogative. Many of us claim that Christmas is about Jesus, yet behave as though it’s about consumerism and Starbucks’ seasonal beverages. Christmas is what we make of it.

But at its best, Christmas reflects “mystery and magic.” It seems our society as a whole has a sense that this is true, and this shows up in stories about Santa Claus, elves, Jack Frost, and an endearing red-nosed reindeer. It also shows up in a beautiful (true) story of a Creator who mysteriously appeared in a manger, was worshipped by shepherds and kings, and eventually went on to save the world. That’s magic if I’ve ever seen it.

 

The Welcome Wagon made a pretty big splash in 2008 when they released their first album under the wing of Sufjan Stevens. The album came out on Sufjan’s label, and Sufjan himself produced and even arranged much of the album. This was enough to gain the band attention, but not enough to account for their talent and success.

The Welcome Wagon’s story is as fascinating as it is simple. The band consists of an ordained Presbyterian minister, Thomas Vito Aiuto, and his wife, Monique. They are joined in performances and recordings by a talented circle of friends. Vito and Monique don’t appear to have any aspiration to be rock stars or career musicians. They enjoy their life as pastors and parents. Their musical career started in their living room, singing hymns in a family setting. And at some point, they decided to share their love for singing with the rest of us.

A pastor and his wife singing hymns. Could that really be noteworthy? Well, yes. Two things demonstrate this. First is their music itself. If you haven’t listened to the Welcome Wagon, I highly recommend it. Their music is fairly straightforward, yet well-crafted and engaging. Christian listeners will recognize a number of familiar hymns alongside clever and sometimes whimsical songs, most of which focus heavily on Christian themes. Musically, the Welcome Wagon has earned the attention it has received.

But what might surprise you is that this pastoral duo, singing old hymns and new songs about Jesus’ blood, has gained a pretty popular fan base in the “secular” music world. Christian bands often go to great lengths to make their music relevant to secular crowds, typically with limited success. But the Welcome Wagon does not apologize for their Christian content. Their music and their message is simple, and Jesus is mentioned and worshiped in song after song. Yet somehow non-Christians are finding it compelling.

I was able to ask Vito a couple of questions about this dynamic. His response reveals that there is more to Christian music than niche marketing:

*Your music features strong Christian subject matter and perspective, yet a lot of people who want nothing to do with Christianity love your music. Why do you think non-Christians are drawn to your music?

I guess I do not really know why people who are not Christians are drawn to our music. I suppose that the answer to that question would vary from person to person. It could be that what people are hearing in our music is a sincerity and earnestness about love and life that is compelling. We believe that Jesus Christ is love, and that he is life: he defines those things and they come from him as a gift to the world. So while someone might not believe that, they might still recognize that we are trying to say something real about life and love, and I think that can be intriguing and even attractive.

*What type of response have you gotten from the Christian Music community?

If by Christian music community you mean the industry that creates and promotes music within a particular market context (Christian music radio, magazines, websites, etc.) I would say that the response has been warm, yet very small, especially for the first record. For our second record, we were a bit more on the radar, but for the first record, because our label isn’t part of the Christian music industry, it was mostly ignored. I don’t necessarily resent that. It’s how the business works, and that’s OK, I guess.

But we have gotten so many really warm and lovely responses from Christians and churches around the world, and that is so gratifying. And that’s what matters. What means so much to us is that even one person is bopping around the house, cleaning or cooking to our record. What means so much to us is to know that even one church is singing our songs and that those songs are helping them to love God. That’s what matters.

Indeed.

You probably won’t find the Welcome Wagon in your local Christian bookstore. (It’s not listed for either Family Christian or Berean Christian stores). That’s understandable; it just shows that what is typically considered “Christian music” is more about the record label than a discerning analysis of the music itself.

What I find fascinating about the Welcome Wagon, however, is the reality that Christians are making music about life as they experience it, that they are making this music for anyone who is interested in listening, and that Christians as well as non-Christians find this music compelling.

As Madeleine L’Engle said about writing fiction for secular audiences:

“If I understand the Gospel, it tells us that we are to spread the Good News to all four corners of the world, not limiting the giving of light to people who already have seen the light. If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer.”[1]

 

 

Download a couple of songs for free here, or buy their music below:

      

 


[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1980) 122.