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Monday
Dec232013

Caroling the Christmas Unicorn

I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas music. More accurately, I love a bunch of Christmas music and hate “Santa Baby.” Each year at Thanksgiving I break out the Ray Conniff Singers vinyl and queue up the iTunes Christmas playlist for a season of shuffling. I’m like my dad in that way. Growing up, when someone complained about being subjected to “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” before the last leaf had fallen, my dad would respond quite logically that there’s no such thing as Thanksgiving music. Christmas music would have to suffice. (Hint hint, musicians: That’s a new, untapped holiday-themed song market.)

Fortunately my wife enjoys Christmas music as much or more than I do, and our kids have no choice. So the 400-song playlist, which I prune and add to every year, has been in heavy rotation for a month now. About a quarter of that playlist are songs by Sufjan Stevens, who’s responsible for two box sets of Christmas music. Two box sets. All Christmas songs. It’s spectacular.

Stevens’s first box set of five CDs (42 songs total), stickers, chord charts and a comic book seemed over the top until he released his newer one, Silver & Gold (2012), which is even more ambitious in every possible way. This time the five new EPs (58 songs) are on vinyl, which means bigger artwork and more stickers, plus temp tattoos; a pull-out poster; instructions and supplies for making your own snowflake ornament; song lyrics and chord charts; essays by Stevens (“An Examination of the Christmas Tree Fetish”) and his pastor buddy Vito Auito of the Welcome Wagon; gory coloring book (“Mess with Christmas... and I Mess with Your Face!”); ubiquitous pink unicorns; and other various explosions of psychedelic eye-candy (illustrations, photographs, illustrated photographs, etc.).

Silver & Gold is a technicolor mix of dark (a chainsaw-wielding Santa) and light (pics of baby-faced Sufjan), reflecting Stevens’s own irresolute relationship with Christmas. As he writes in the essay, “This is the true horror-show, tragic-comedy, slap-stick-community-theater-James Joyce-fundamental-catharsis-of-the-holidays: the unflappable, existential emptiness that perseveres in the heart of man as he recklessly pursues his absurd search for happiness and comes up empty handed…. And yet, I continue to sing my song of Christmas.”

To Stevens, Christmas is a complex mess of a holiday, fully inhabiting the sacred and profane and everything in between. That approach makes his music an accurate—and, I’d argue, one of the best—reflections of the season. And not just his recordings. I witnessed his holiday concert last season, which was alternately billed as “The Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice” and “The Sirfjam Stephanapolous Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Spectacular Music Pageant Variety Show Disaster.” It was over the top and all the better for it. There was an a cappella version of “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” in five-part harmony, yet there were also balloons, bubbles, inflatable Santas, confetti. It was sincerely absurd. It was absurdly sincere. 

Silver & Gold’s 12-minute epic “Christmas Unicorn” may best reflect the Sufjan Stevens approach to Christmas music, mocking the season’s excesses but also reveling in them. Unicorns aren’t typically a holiday mascot. That’s a job generally reserved for reindeer, turtledoves and the like. Stevens, though, is not one to distinguish among acceptable and unacceptable holiday trappings.

The song starts simply with light strums and rapid-fire, first-person descriptions straight from the unicorn’s mouth. It wears a “uniform made of gold” with mistletoe on its nose. It’s a “little bit shy with a lazy eye.” It’s a “pagan heresy” and a “tragical Catholic shrine.” Then, at about the 2:30 mark, the unicorn drops the bomb: “You may dress in the human uniform, child / But I know you’re just like me.” Over the next 10 minutes the song morphs into an explosion of digital confetti—a beautifully excessive electro-pop dance party. With flutes, of course, and some lyrics borrowed from Joy Division (“Love will tear us apart again”).

Stevens doesn’t let the unicorn, you or me off the hook for any of this Christmas ridiculousness. “I’m the Christmas Unicorn! You’re the Christmas Unicorn, too!” he sings, but follows it with the take-home message of these Christmas songs: “It’s all right, I love you.”

You play Christmas music absurdly early in the season?
“It’s all right, I love you.”
That same iTunes playlist on shuffle every day?
“It’s all right, I love you.”
Meaning you spend more time with that playlist than your kids?
“It’s all right, I love you.”
And all those warm/fuzzy/kooky songs you love don’t make you a better person?
“It’s all right, I love you.”