"There is a time when young men must grow up and be brothers," sings Sufjan Stevens in "The Child with the Star on His Head", a rumination on the festive impulse. "Are you afraid of growing up too quickly?"
It's a good question. Stevens himself is the most prolific enthusiast for Christmas. Silver & Gold is his second 5CD collection of Christmas songs old and new, offered in a bewildering diversity of styles and attitudes . It's a cornucopia of delights that both focuses on the core characteristics of the festive form, and tests its outer margins to the point of fracture.
Part of its success is due to Stevens' uniquely ambivalent position, at once ingenious and ingenuous. His obvious sincerity and new age Christian attitude, combined with his classical training and avant-garde temperament, enables him to take the kinds of risks that wouldn't even occur to most performers: swathing traditional carols and yuletide standards in arrangements of dreamlike bathos or spooky mystery; seguing nonchalantly between hoedown fiddles and fizzing synthesisers; slipping from spartan, Amish-style "Sacred Harp" chorales to abstract drone-whines akin to Tim Buckley's "Starsailor"; and in the extraordinary "Christmas Woman", building a Faust-like Krautrock groove with woodwind and keys as the backing for carol singers.
Meanwhile, the standard seasonal sentiments are interspersed, in songs like "Barcarola" and "The Child with the Star on His Head", with Stevens' trademark reminiscences of the moments of shame and elation that helped build his character: small, intimate episodes elevated into his own personal advent calendar.
Each of the five discs takes a different approach to the material, from the folk-baroque stylings of "Gloria" (Vol 6) to the sci-fi synth and drum-machine extravaganza of "Christmas Infinity Voyage" (Vol 8). The set ends with the psychedelic pop of "Christmas Unicorn" (Vol 10), whose 13-minute title-track concludes the epic 58-track voyage with a suitably fantastical meditation on myth and fable.
Download: Christmas Unicorn; Barcarola; Christmas Woman; Up on the Housetop; The Child with the Star on His Head