Sunday, December 2, 2012

All In: Sufjan's Christmas

Most of us don't know what it's like to go "all in" on something.  We tend to go somewhat in or pretty much in or even kind of in and to be satisfied with that effort.  The structure of our lives and our dispositions don't really allow us to go all in.  People who go all in amaze us, mystify us, and scare us.  We don't know what to do with that kind of public commitment.

Which brings me to Sufjan Stevens.

Most anybody who is anyone in the music industry has a Christmas CD by now, or at least a Christmas song.  It's a good career move, a way to get one's name out there, potentially a cash cow because many of the traditional and classic songs don't have royalties by now.  They've been around too long.

Sufjan Stevens has 10 Christmas CDs, or two Christmas box sets, depending on how you want to divide them up.  He released last month 59 new Christmas tracks, compiled over the last 5 years.  These supplement the original 42 Christmas tracks he recorded during the 5 years before that.  One CD every Christmas for the past 10 years, homemade Christmas CDs made with family and friends for family and friends that eventually made their way to us.  This is not a career move, a cynical money grab.  

This guy is all in.  About Christmas.

I had occasion the other night to see Mr. Stevens' Christmas Show, Sufjan Stevens' Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice, at a local venue.  It was, like most great concerts, a step into another world where different rules apply and the only way to function is to "go with it."  Introduced to Sufjan's world outside the venue (he does not want any ticket scalping and so institutes a convoluted ticket pick-up system that takes a long time), I started the evening a bit frustrated.  The opening stand-up comic act, a woman veering between Lily Tomlin and Andy Kaufman, didn't do it for me at all, though I tried to laugh along.

But when Mr. Steven's took the stage, all became right with the universe.  What indie artist besides Mr. Stevens could put on a show consisting of non-ironic renderings of classic Christmas songs, electronic updates of same, sight readings of centuries-old Christmas hymns learned on the tour bus, original Christmas songs, and the song offerings of a gigantic spin wheel behind the band that catered to the chance spins of band and audience members?  Who else could get hipsters, hippies, conservative Christians, and randoms like me singing along to famous Christmas songs, again without irony?

But then, what other popular artist of any genre has a catalog of Christmas songs that he has written that are better than most artists' standard repertoire?  Only Sufjan Stevens.  On this night, the audience was treated to Stevens-penned classics like "That Was The Worst Christmas Ever," "Lumberjack Christmas," "Christmas In The Room," "Sister Winter," and the climactic "Christmas Unicorn."  On a night when any number of the greatest Christmas songs of all time were honored, it was Mr. Stevens' own compositions that anchored the show.  

When you hear them live, you realize that one of the many aspects of Mr. Stevens' genius is that his Christmas songs are but an extension, a different context, for the same musical outlook that has made him one of the most idiosnyncratic and critically-acclaimed artists of our time.  It is difficult to name a better CD from the previous decade than Come On, Feel The Illinoise!  The colossal joke of his "Fifty States Project" is not that the length of his remaining life would like make such an accomplishment impossible (given the pace of the first two state CDs' releases); it is that his vision is so intimate, so focused on family and friends and his own relationships that the project could have have gotten out of the Midwest (or Brooklyn, where he now lives).  

You see this in the live show.  Working with a multi-talented band that feels more like a group of friends than employees, you get the feeling that everyone on stage was equally willing to buy into the Sufjan Stevens vision for the evening and for the tour.  

And in the middle of it is Mr. Stevens' himself, as much a jokester as Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Tour, but without the mask and the cynicism.  He enjoys himself, but not at the expense of the songs or the concept.  He stands front and center, playing more instruments and flourishes than you can imagine, without the help of roadie or instrument techs, while also managing the costume changes, the wheel, the pacing of the show, the audience interaction.  You look up at the wheel, and it looks like he made it, like the set, the costumes, maybe the sign outside.  You feel like his vision extends to the drink in your hand, the people you're with, the words to the songs.  While his cohorts toss Christmas blow-up animals into the crowd and switch from bass to tuba or trumpet and sell the Christmas spirit with the same conviction he does.

The great gift of the Sufjan Stevens Christmas Show is its "innocence."  I qualify that only because the word "innocence" does not capture the complexity of the vision.  Mr. Stevens, probably alone among any artist working today or at any time in history, understands the complexity of the Christmas season, its blend of pagan and Christian, sacred and profane, silly and transcendent, commercial and untouchable, annoying and essential, hushed and bombastic, assimilating all of that while honoring it as well.  In his hands, a shlocky 60's Christmas addition like "Do You Hear What I Hear?" becomes a re-examination, perhaps of the entire season.  "Do you feel what I feel?" he asks over and over above the electronic burps and squawks of the remix.  In fact, any song related to Christmas regains its dignity when Mr. Stevens interprets it.  Every song becomes new again.

Like his other CDs, Mr. Stevens' Christmas discs promote a strong sense of humanity.  At his show, in his onstage demeanor, like in his songs, the overriding sense I get is that the force behind all of it is love--of audience, of music, of the season.  The gift of non-Christmas songs in the encore--"Chicago" and "The World's Columbian Expostion"--great as they were, were almost unneeded as presents to the audience.  By that time, we already knew how he felt.

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