Keeping with his tradition of eclecticism, Sufjan Steven’s Silver & Gold is nothing short of overwhelming. The 5-EP, 58-song Christmas compilation follows up his 2006 Songs for Christmas with an extensive, experimental range including a reverent, folksy rendition of “Silent Night,” an Auto-Tuned “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, a version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” in which he asks, “Shepherds, why this jubilee/have you seen a flying saucer?,” and a curious, unanticipated cover of Prince’s “Alphabet St.” The album also features collaborations with The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dressner and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. And, of course, there are original tracks like “Christmas in the Room” and the seven-minute “Barcarola (You Must be a Christmas Tree),” beautifully considered arrangements filled with homegrown, lyrical vignettes that only Sufjan Stevens could conceive.
Amid over three hours of music, there are inevitably songs we’d like to toss out in the snow. “Jingle Bells” sounds less like experimentation and more like a self-indulgent rendition of a cacophonous car crash, and I struggle to imagine someone voluntarily listening to Stevens’s version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” played entirely on recorder. And while both the nuanced melancholy of more traditional tracks and playful lyrics such as “I am Santa’s Helper, you are Santa’s slave” lend themselves to a certain level of provocation, the mockery in lines like “If drinking makes it easy, the music’s kind of cheesy” is disappointingly heavy-handed. Sufjan’s experimentation is undoubtedly hit-or-miss, creating a tension in the album’s Christmas spirit that makes us ask whether he’s overcommitted.
While the answer is yes — this child-like overcommitment to Christmas in all its complexity is entirely self-conscious, and renders Sufjan’s album all the more successful as an art form. Even its physicality is overdone, intensely ornate and complete with an 80-page booklet of lyrics, essays, temp tats of a manga unicorn and emo-Jesus, a construct-it-yourself tree ornament, and much else. Silver & Gold is an album that truly matches content to form, conveying Christmas’s simultaneous materialism, spirituality, expectation, disappointment, playfulness—ultimately, raw imperfection. Its Christmas spirit may not be uniform, but it is distinctively and lovably Sufjan.