Sufjan Stevens in Vulture

Sufjan Stevens’s catalogue feels wild and untamable. In just a year span, between September 2020 and 2021, the singer-songwriter and Asthmatic Kitty Records founder debuted almost five hours of music: the pensive, electronic album The Ascension; the ambient, mournful Convocations; and the film-obsessed A Beginner’s Mind, where he and artist Angelo De Augustine wrote songs about a string of horror and action-adventure movies. In the aughts, Sufjan’s Michigan and Illinois albums earned a massive following impressed not just by his heartfelt lyrics, elaborate arrangements, and affecting singing, but by the way songs like “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” and “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” imparted a sense of geography and history, however subtle. It was then, in 2006, with Illinois sales sailing past 100,000 units, when he released a delightfully quixotic array of projects, including Songs for Christmas, a five-volume set of holiday tracks the performer had originally gifted to friends. The song selection revealed him as a sophisticated collector of carols, and the expedition in the originals — from the ramshackle folk of “We’re Going to the Country!” to the boisterous big-band sound of “Get Behind Me Santa!” and “Christmas in July” — mapped all the creative turns it took to get from the embryonic ideas in his 1999 debut A Sun Came to the big mainstream breakthrough.

Holiday albums are the back roads in Sufjan Stevens’s catalogue, the less-traveled trails joining the points of interest where the rest of the audience congregates. They’re also a place where the elaborate detail and abrupt stylistic shifts and secular-spiritual dualities in his art feel most unfettered, being products of a friends-and-family tradition the rest of us heard only years after the fact. By the time you figured this out, Sufjan was already miles away. If Illinois was your first encounter, you might’ve scratched your head at the winding, calamitous, synth-drenched tunes on his 2010 album, The Age of Adz, a sharp detour for fans pining for more “Chicago.” Another holiday package — 2012’s 58-song Silver & Gold — traced that evolution, getting from the gorgeous, rustic Dessner brothers collaborations “Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)” and “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One” to the glitchy, psychedelic epic “The Child With the Star on His Head.” It’s a strange journey, but the artist sees his now 100-song seasonal undertaking in a different light; ten years in, Sufjan Stevens, who once met Steven Spielberg and introduced himself as a Christmas songwriter, feels that it’s imperative for him to leave the project behind.

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