Sufjan Stevens had always been reticent to open up about religion too much in interviews, but a shocking victory for evangelical nationalism in the US drove him to write a short, sharp, and open note on his website in early 2017. The piece became an op-ed at the Washington Post called "Stop repeating the heresy of declaring the United States a 'Christian nation,'" but it's best in its first form, without paragraph breaks, as a block of text that reads like a stream of forthright incantations: "God is love, period. God is universal, nameless, faceless, and with no allegiance to anything other than love."
He was making a political statement, but Stevens was also revealing something about his process. Biblical allusions and after-church oddities are strewn across his catalog. Most of his songs—from the folksy and delicate to the obtuse and experimental—are hymns in one way or another, either lifted from scripture or written in response to it. On "The Greatest Gift," the centerpiece to a collection of loosies and remixes he released last year, he sang: "The law above all laws / Is to love your friends and lovers / To lay down your life for your brothers / As you abide in peace / So will your delight increase."
Still, he's a Christian and an artist—not an artist making "Christian music" in the conventional sense. As he told the music blog Delusions of Adequacy in 2006, "faith and art are a dangerous match[…] they can quickly lead to devotional artifice or didactic crap." Factory-farmed religious music is propaganda—designed to convert the unbelievers or at least reassure the chronically faithful. It's music with an end-goal, and Stevens has never been interested in producing something so simple.
That might be why Stevens committed himself to recording Christmas music once every year for an entire decade, inspecting and occasionally subverting a genre that's typically among the world's most devotional and didactic. On those 10 EPs, he released everything from church standards like "O Come O Come Emmanuel" to buzzy, absurdist originals like "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" They've since been collected on two sprawling, multi-disc records: 2006's 42-track Songs for Christmas and 2012's 58-track Silver & Gold. Listening to them all in one go, you'll hear Stevens progress as an artist, widening his scope as he adds new layers and textures to his early acoustic songs.
But what really strikes me about these records is the way in which Stevens jumps from song to song without thinking twice about the whiplash. A banjo-and-falsetto version of "Away in a Manger" floats into a buoyant indie rock song called "Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!" A couple of years later, he reels off a faithful piano rendition of "Jingle Bells" before a jittery, pretty original called "Christmas In July." The sound changes as swiftly as the subject—spiritual songs give way to to the secular, then jump straight back again.
Some of this is down to compulsion. His mythic 50 States Project—an attempt to write an album about every state in the Union—was never really going to work out, but Stevens did seem to believe in it for a while. For a long time, the same obsession, the same drive to complete things, was there with his Christmas efforts. There are only so many God-fearing carols to get through. With Stevens recording a clutch of Christmas music every year for a decade, digression and repetition were inevitable.
But it also spoke to a holistic approach to the holidays and its soundtrack. In an interview with Uncut Magazine in 2012, Stevens said that the festive EPs went beyond the religious for a reason:
At its core, Christmas has a mysterious punchline: the incarnation of God as a Christ-child. This is weird. Consider the details: angel visitations, teenage pregnancy, shotgun wedding, the massacre of the innocents, the wise men following an astrological phenomenon, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster. Mix all that with contemporary pop adaptations: Frosty, Rudolph, Santa, the Grinch, etc., and you have a veritable chop salad of sacrilege. Not to mention the elements of capitalism and consumerism the Western world has imposed on it. We have made Christmas our bitch, for better and for worse. These EPs are desperate to find meaning in all of that, I suppose, both sacred and profane.
At his best, this is what Stevens has always done, bleeding the sacred into the profane, making the mundane spiritual, articulating tiny details before laying out an earth-shattering catastrophe. At points on those Christmas records, he did so beautifully. My favorite of those songs is "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!," originally written for 2003's Ding! Dong! Songs for Christmas - Vol. III. It starts out as a nostalgic idyll:
Shoveling snow in the driveway, driveway
Taking our shoes
Riding a sled down the hillside, hillside
But in the second verse, in the same careful and quiet tone, Stevens sings about familial terror:
Our father yells
Throwing gifts in the wood stove, wood stove
My sister runs away
Taking her books to the schoolyard, schoolyard
The protagonist slips into some incantations of his own to stave off the fear and misery. "In time the snow will rise, In time the Lord will rise," but that doesn't seem to work. Then, "Silent night, Holy night, Silent night," but that doesn't resolve anything either. So Stevens ends the song nowhere. "Nothing feels right," he sings. Then the song burns up and floats away.
Alex Robert Ross is a Christmas unicorn on Twitter.