Clearly, Sufjan Stevens likes to think that little bit bigger than other musicians. He's the kind of chap who, if asked to devise a radio jingle for the traffic news, would come back the next day with a three-act opera about meteorology and motoring, incorporating a welter of arcane technical detail, and personal observations on his own experiences of black ice and fog, for good measure. As a break from his ongoing 50 States project, Stevens has elected to release a Christmas album - except that instead of one album, it's a boxed set of five discs, each previously only available to a small circle of friends and relations as an annual gift.
The individual discs all mingle traditional material with new Christmas songs written for the occasion by Stevens. Most of the standards are presented as short cameos, solo tone-poems played on piano ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Jingle Bells") or the twinkling sound of glockenspiel ("Angels We Have Heard On High"); some, such as "Little Drummer Boy" and "Joy To The World", are treated to more elaborate arrangements.
But it's Stevens's new material that furnishes most of the interest, with the typically quirky, excited titles - "It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!"; "That was the Worst Christmas Ever!"; the spiteful "Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)", and my favourite, "Get Behind Me, Santa!" - hinting at a more ambivalent attitude towards the season than is usual in the genre. The latter track features a full band behind lyrics that characterise Santa as "like a psychopathic colour TV" and "a bad brother, breaking into people's garages". There's a naive charm about songs like the galumphing "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and the grungey "Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!" - but even here, there's something slightly sinister about Stevens's promise, "I might kiss you on the back of the neck, because it's Christmas time", as if you're overhearing the celebrations of some weird celibate cult.
Elsewhere, the anachronistic "Christmas in July" enthuses about out-of-season celebrations against a backdrop of bustling brass, woodwind and strings in the familiar Stevens style, and "Jupiter Winter" features flugelhorn, violin and a choir, while "It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!" and "That was the Worst Christmas Ever!", find Stevens returning to the banjo. And thanks to the inclusion of a lyric booklet and chord chart, you can even sing- along-a-Sufjan, if the spirit takes you.
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