December 14, 2006

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Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas
Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2006

As is typical of Sufjan Stevens, this music would fit perfectly in a Volkswagen commercial or Gilmore Girls episode. Even the melancholy feels airy, and you'll later find yourself humming the tunes, never having realized they were sticking.

You're not likely to crank "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" during your holiday dinner, but you will enjoy it in your car, on a gray December day. So it goes with many of Sufjan's original compositions on this five-disc set.

From Stevens' liner notes: "These short collections were assembled at home, transferred to CD-R, sent out with stickers and stamps to family, friends and loved ones, year after year." For five years, 2001 to 2006 skipping 2004. Voila!, a "ramshackle mix tape of Christmas hits' (sometimes adding my own originals)."

Along with the five discs (each around 20 minutes of music), the box contains a 40-page booklet with lyrics and chord charts plus three stories (one by Rick Moody), and another booklet that folds out to a family photo and a cartoon story in which caffeine helps a depressed Santa turn the worst Christmas ever into the best Christmas ever.

The traditional songs are sometimes presented as snippets between Stevens' originals—52 seconds of "The First Noel," 36 seconds of "Jingle Bells"—and sometimes given the full treatment: a three-minute "We Three Kings," a four-minute "Joy to the World," and one of the nicest "O Holy Night"s there is.

The originals range from a seven-minute anthem called "Star of Wonder" to a playful ditty called "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and a song of mild pouting called "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas?"

All of it is notably simple, demanding nothing from us and forcing nothing on us (the way, say, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does). Christmas is about a childlike innocence, and here that is in spades. There's zero pageantry, unless you're talking about a grade-school holiday pageant—in fact a lot of these tunes sound like someone doodling on the upright in Mrs. Sterpinsky's third-grade classroom, or like Schroeder's plinky piano. Which really is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

"Christmas music poses a cosmological conundrum in requiring us to sing so sweetly and sentimentally about something so terrifying and tragic," Stevens writes—note that, in selecting his songs, Sufjan draws a bit more from the story of Jesus' birth than from the less-terrifying/tragic story of Santa, but then again he seems to find the powers of Santa near-terrifyingly awesome.

No brooding, no stretching for glamorous emotions. Just twinkly notes and la la las. Merry Christmas. B+

— Lisa Parsons