Crate-Digging Christmas Special: Sufjan Stevens – Noel: Songs for Christmas, Vol. 1

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. Or do a Christmas special.

(Recorded December 2001; Asthmatic Kitty, 2006)

I might be cheating a little bit here, in that I’m not reviewing the entire Songs for Christmas collection that was released in 2006 – that’s a 5-disc box set, including all five EPs Sufjan recorded between the 2001 and 2006 holidays. (Fun fact: He didn’t record one in 2004 because he was too busy working on Illinoise.) These EP-length records were given as gifts to Sufjan’s friends and family, and only officially released in the form of the box set.

And yet, that’s a lot of Christmas music to get through in one sitting – no matter how enthusiastic you are about the music that’s played on your local adult-contempo station each Christmas, it’s difficult to undergo a constant barrage. So I don’t feel so bad for simply skimming EP number one off the top.

As with Low’s Christmas EP, half the fun with Sufjan’s Christmas excursions is evaluating the traditional material, with the other half exploring the new additions to the holiday canon, if in fact they’re even worthy of canonization. Of the classics, two are very short “suggestions” of songs: the 0:47 instrumental take on “Silent Night” and the 0:39 “Holy, Holy, etc.” Interlude material only. But “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” stand with the best of the season, both delivered in Seven Swans-esque arrangement, with banjo and harmonized vocals leading the other instruments through the reverent renditions. Guitar and chimes make welcome appearances as well. Both tracks are perfect for evening listening in front of the fire.

The two original compositions are a little goofier – and I should quickly mention that this is not meant to disparage them, they’re just a bit … different. Who doesn’t get a little bit giddy and rambunctious around the holidays? Stevens is no different, as he and some friends perform the exclamatory “We’re Going to the Country!” and “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”, neither featuring Sufjan on lead vocal. Both are still lo-key, keeping with the small family gathering vibe, although the latter stumbles joyously off key in places with its “la-la-la” choruses. Both also reinforce glad tidings, and it’s hard not to smile when dreaming about the snow-covered lawn and the roaring fire and the wonderful moments spent with family and friends.

The whole EP wallows in the rustic charm of Seven Swans, and the traditional material syncs lyrically with Sufjan’s religious explorations of that LP, although it wasn’t released until 2004, three years after Noel’s initial distribution. So appropriately for Sufjan yet unusual for Christmas (yet not so unusual for the spiritual sentiment), the EP ends with a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It fits, and although it doesn’t contain the feel of the holiday, it mirrors the point of it. Sufjan often does a remarkable job of externalizing our fears and doubts and making them concrete and explorable, but he’s also adept at letting go and rejoicing with us. And he does so here. It’s a good gift.

RIYL: Seven Swans, David Bazan, Will Oldham


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