‘Silver and Gold’ explores secular twists on Christmas

Between 2006 and 2010 Sufjan Stevens released only a single album, a recording of a classical piece written for a film dedicated to the infamous Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Since 2010, we have been graced with a bounty of music, from an hourlong “EP” and a full album in one year, several collaborative projects, and now a package of five EPs of Christmas music, the second such collection the suddenly prolific Brooklyn-based artist has released. An avalanche of fifty-eight songs that run the spectrum from iconoclastic and experimental to solemn and reverent, “Silver & Gold” is an unwieldy but largely excellent collection of holiday classics and original songs.

The five EPs — entitled “Gloria,” “I Am Santa’s Helper,” “Christmas Infinite Voyage,” “Let It Snow,” and “Christmas Unicorn”  — all vary considerably in style and approach, owing to the unusual way this album was collected. Stevens recorded the songs over a period from 2006 to 2010 and then subjected a few of the songs to reworking over the last two years. In general, the songs are fixated as much on death and the end of the world as on traditional Christmas themes, particularly the originals, and there is a vast gulf of styles covered by the songs.

“Gloria” conforms most closely to what lovers of “Michigan” and “Illinois” might expect: starry vocal arrangements, tender guitar picking, and a palpably warm and affectionate tone. A few of the originals here, like the excellent “Baracola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree),” were composed by Stevens in collaboration with Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. “Gloria” is intimate and approachable, and probably the most clearheaded of the five EPs here. From there, the material grows progressively more troubling and bizarre.

“I Am Santa’s Helper!” finds Stevens between major projects, recorded right before “The B.Q.E.” Running at forty-two minutes and twenty-two songs, it bursts with confused and fractured songs that seem half-finished. It starts off promisingly enough with the raucously emotional “Christmas Woman,” which is where the electronic instruments start to assert themselves, albeit quietly at first. After that track, however, the songs tended to degenerate into half-formed chaos. It’s not unlike what I would expect a Madlib Christmas album to sound like, though with far fewer drug references. Standout tracks from this EP are few but include genuinely great songs like “Idumea” and the portentous “Even The Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way.”

“Christmas Infinite Voyage” brings coherence back to the proceedings, opening with “Angels We Have Heard On High,” which takes considerable liberties with the hymn’s original melody and lyrics. Closely resembling the digital-orchestral sonic overload of 2010’s “Age of Adz” album, this song sparks with inspiration. Anchored in a traditional Christmas spirit by sleigh bells and choirs, it leaves room for triumphant synthesizer blasts. By far the most completely transformed canon song, however, is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” His voice robotized by autotune, Sufjan revels in repetition, extending this relatively simple narrative tune into a monumental nine-minute epic. This EP concludes with my favorite song of the whole set, entitled “The Child With A Star On His Head,” which runs fifteen minutes and features some of Steven’s trademark sparking, dissonant guitar soloing.

The final two EPs finish off the collection well. “Let It Snow” and “Christmas Unicorn” don’t quite measure up to “Infinite Voyage,” but the final two songs on the latter, both of which were released prior to the EPs themselves, make up for that. “Justice Delivers Its Death” presents a twist on the “Silver and Gold” song from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” turning it into a tortured lamentation for the state of the world, and “Christmas Unicorn” brings the whole set to a crashing and apocalyptic end, recording the complicated religious and secular twists on the Christian holiday.