Unanswerable Questions #3a: Sufjan Stevens' Silver & Gold

The Very Right Reverend Sufjan Stevens, Bishop of Brooklyn
Unanswerable Questions--an ongoing segment here at PostConsumer Reports where I ask questions to people of interest who will most likely never answer them, simply because I do not know them and probably never will. Still, the questions come and I have got to ask them somewhere. I have so many questions. So so many...

So far we have (un)asked Fernando Ortega (but he actually answered the questions!) and Keith Green.



So I tried to get an interview with Sufjan Stevens. 

I contacted his record company and they were gracious enough to respond (through Sufjan's step-dad himself!), but they also told me he was (probably) not doing interviews at the moment.  That's been a few weeks ago now and I assume I am not going to get the Sufjan interview I so desperately want. I would say there is a 5% chance he will respond, but for now the questions are going unanswered. 

I have been a little Sufjan-obsessed lately (for proof go here, here, here, and here).  Even so, his latest release of Christmas music has stirred up a lot of questions in me and he has given absolutely no interviews surrounding Silver & Gold and the tour that followed it.  I know we are past the Christmas season now, but still, I think these questions deserve answering. Therefore, I will release them out into the ether, but in doing so I will speak no more of Sufjan--at least not in the near future!!!

Some people have questions they want to ask God when they die.  Not me. 

I just have questions for Sufjan.

1. Many of your original Xmas songs are melancholy in nature, and none of your originals are without a reference to something darker in our natures or our lives.  What value do you see in composing this type of Christmas song?  What place does the sad Christmas song have in the larger world of Christmas music?

2. Do you see any of your original Xmas songs being sung by groups of people, as many of the most popular and 'timeless' Christmas carols are today?  In terms of church music, do you think any of them are congregation ready, so to speak, or at least, "let's gather around the piano and do some singin' ready"?

3. In relation to the previous question, why did you not make a simple straightforward Christmas song?  Why do they all contain either abstract, quirky, or disconcerting lyrics?  I mean no offense with this, I'm just a little perplexed about it is all.  If I were writing this much Christmas music I would want something that perhaps could make it into the 'canon,' if you will.  Perhaps "Christmas in the Room" will make it into the 'secular' canon, but what about the 'sacred' canon?  I think people might have a hard time singing about UFO's and Jesus as having a star on his head.  Don't get me wrong--there's nothing wrong or bad about any of this, it's just not conventional is all.  That is, it won't exactly "play in Peoria" as the saying goes, which in order for a Christmas song to endure throughout the years, it's going to need to.  And maybe to probe a little deeper, are you doing this on purpose?  Is all this abstract and dark imagery an act of self-sabotage to ensure you will not make it into the canon?

4. Tell us about how you 'released' these EP's originally.  In what form did your friends receive them?  How many did you send out each year?  Did you get them professionally pressed and printed and whatnot?

5. As far as publicly releasing the EP's goes, why are you releasing them in bulk as you're doing and not at the rate of one EP a year?

6. Who is the picture on the front of EP #7 "I am Santa's Helper" supposed to be?

7. In the liner notes to Silver & Gold you admit that it actually was Rafter who leaked EP #8, "Christmas Infinity Voyage," and on top of that some songs were also leaked from EP #6, at the hand of your friends the Dessner's.  Was that upsetting when they did that?  When you found out from Pitchfork or whatever about the leak did you call Rafter and give him a good talking to?

I actually got a response to this question in my email back from Sufjan's step-day Lowell Brams.  Basically, he said Sufjan understands stuff like this happens, that he is not really mad about it, and they are all his friends.

8. A number of the songs on Silver & Gold are different than they were on the leaked EP's, especially the songs on "Christmas Infinity Voyage."  Other than that they were leaked and recorded a bit sloppily the first time (as you mention in the liner notes), why did you feel the need to change them so drastically?  I'm particularly thinking about the absence of the piano and the flutes on "Christmas in the Room," the absence of the last ten minutes of "The Child With the Star on His Head" where the band goes crazy and there's a choir singing, and the middle part to "Joy to the World," which references the middle section of "Impossible Soul."

9. There are a number of well known Christmas songs you have not yet recorded ("O Come All Ye Faithful," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "The Christmas Song").  Are you planning to keep recording songs every year for your friends and then release another boxset in five years?  Have you exhausted your interest in Xmas music or is there still something there worth delving into?

10. A great number of your original Christmas songs seem very personal in their origin, at least personal to the narrator singing the song.  However, as listeners we do not have a lot of context for the story behind the song.  Can you give us the background on one of your songs, just so we can hear the story of where it came from?  "Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One"? "Barcarola"? "Christmas in the Room"? "Happy Karma Christmas"?  You pick!

11. Then, in that same vein could you also give us an example of what your were trying to accomplish in one of your "sacred" original songs?  Either you seem to be coming up with a fresh take on the old base material ("Christmas Woman," "Child With the Star on His Head" ) or you are playing with the conventions of a well-established carol ("The Midnight Clear," "Angels We Have Heard on High").  Again, you pick the song.

12. It would seem as if you have two overarching (or underlying) theses for the entire work that are found in the final two songs, "Silver & Gold" and "Christmas Unicorn."  This leads me to two questions:   

A) In "Silver & Gold" you seem to be echoing the spirit of many Biblical passages--that is, do not put your trust in what is fleeting and will decay but instead put your trust in what is eternal. Were you drawing directly from Scripture here or did that imagery seep in (and then seep out) simply through being exposed to it over the years? 

B) While seeming a little silly on the surface "Christmas Unicorn" is actually quite profound and a bit of a slap in the face.  It seems to be saying Christmas is a mutt, a hybrid, a grotesque mutant, both beautiful and banal, pagan and Christian.  There is no orthodox understanding or celebration of Christmas; it is a all a big "mess" as you are constantly referring to it in the artwork for the album.  And by way of relation we are this same mess, this same mutant. We might gather to worship the Christ child in all sincere humility and yet feel that ever-present and insatiable tug to spend all our money on stuff--stuff that never satisfies (And maybe even finding ourselves honestly enjoying Wham!'s "Last Christmas").  In light of all this, I have a specific question only applicable to a specific group of people: What are we Christians to do?  How can we openly admit to all the gross contradictions present in the holiday and yet strive to live differently?  I have a lot of my own answers to these questions, but I am interested in what you have to say.  And along with that, how do you celebrate Christmas?  I am not looking for nitty gritty details, but just the normal and boring stuff--e.g. I go to church or I literally just have "Christmas in room" with my loved ones or I watch all twenty four hours of TBS's "A Christmas Story" marathon, and so on.

13.  Despite all the seriousness on Silver & Gold you also use a lot of humor and irony and just plain old silliness throughout the work--from all the art work, to songs like "Mr. Frosty Man," to the repeated pun of "Christmess," to the online videos and your live show.  And to put it in context, this time around you have fully embraced the kind of irony and pastiche that you only hinted at in the first Xmas boxset.  What role are you hoping humor plays in how people embrace this Christmas music?  And what do you think it means to have so much "serious" material right alongside music done in some form of jest?

14. And just because I cannot help but ask, do you have any plans to record and release "Majesty Snowbird" or the Planetarium anytime in the future?

Merry (Post)Christmas Sufjan!  And a happy knitting new year!


Anonymous said...

you really should try to email Asthmatic Kitty again and try to get him to answer these questions. They are really good questions!!

PostConsumer Reports said...

Thank you. You can feel free to contact them for me if you like. I too am still very much interested in the answers...