Deconstructing: Sufjan Stevens And Christian Music

| November 16, 2012 - 12:13 pm

Sufjan Stevens dropped 59 songs’ worth of existential Christmas crisis on the world this week in the form of a five-disc collection called Silver & Gold. The sprawling set is Sufjan’s attempt to reconcile the conflict he feels between the sanctity that supposedly defines the holiday and the vapid consumerism that has become its calling card, a conflict that seems to be rather consuming. Silver & Gold collects a bunch of skewed and faithful takes on seasonal standards alongside a bunch more originals that run a similar gamut from heartwarming to unsettling. That this is Sufjan’s second such release, following 2006’s 42-song EP box Songs For Christmas, speaks volumes (literally) about the man’s Yuletide fixation. So does the wealth of bonus material; in case the sheer quantity of music wasn’t sufficient to communicate his complicated feelings about the holiday, Silver & Gold comes with stickers, temporary tattoos, a paper ornament, song lyrics and chord charts, extensive liner notes, an “apocalyptic pull-out poster” and “hallucinogenic photographs and psychedelic graphic design (by Sufjan Stevens, drug-free since 1975).” It’s an Etsy-era mother lode.

An essay that accompanies Silver & Gold sheds light on the ideas behind the project: “Christmas is a drag,” it begins, before pondering why this culture returns every year to “going through the motions of merriment.” The thesis seems to be that we sing Christmas songs as a respite from the gnawing emptiness in our lives, that we return to the holiday’s convoluted tangle of sacred and profane to grasp at something that feels like meaning. Silver & Gold, then, is Sufjan’s attempt to find new life in those familiar tropes. Because this is a product of Sufjan’s imagination, traditions and iconography are subverted in ways both precious and long-winded. The videos accompanying Silver & Gold conjure warmth (the title track), dread (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”) and absurdity (the claymation zombie bloodbath “Mr. Frosty Man”). The tattoos include a bomb-throwing skeleton. “I Am Santa’s Helper” frames kindly old St. Nick as a slavedriver. The 12-minute “Christmas Unicorn” adds an entirely new character to the Rudolph-Santa-Frosty pantheon before channeling an unlikely Christmas spirit, Ian Curtis. (There is also a Prince cover for some reason.) A nine-minute, AutoTune-slathered rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” becomes an unusually funky meditation on detachment and isolation; it’s easy to imagine the tweaked refrain “Do you feel what I feel?” as a cry for help from a ghost becoming a machine.

Though unpredictable in some sense, none of this comes as much of a surprise anymore because Sufjan has made a career out of confounding expectations. In his anonymous early years, he followed template-establishing debut A Sun Came with template-smashing electronic instrumental record Enjoy Your Rabbit. After finding breakout success nine(!) years ago with his graceful and expansive homeland treatise Michigan, he promised 49 more albums about states. Not to be shackled by such a daunting project, he promptly followed up with the pensive spiritual meditation Seven Swans. Then he actually did make another state-themed album, Illinois, a record that somehow managed to be even longer and denser than Michigan. It contained so much music that it’s a miracle he had any songs left for the outtakes collection The Avalanche, but of course that had 21 tracks. By this point people expected Sufjan to be prolific, but what followed was half a decade of nothing but a few quirky side projects (Songs For Christmas, the expressway-inspired classical piece The BQE), during which time his reputation swung so far in the opposite direction that people wondered if he’d ever release a proper album again. Out of that silence came 2010’s All Delighted People, an EP so sizable he could have easily deemed it a full-length (his Bandcamp bio calls it “generous”). That was cause for excitement, but it was quickly overshadowed by Sufjan’s most radical left turn, an outsider-art-inspired digital freakout called The Age Of Adz. Now comes another batch of Christmas songs, surpassing the girth of Songs For Christmas in the same way Illinois surpassed Michigan.

It’s unclear how much of this was Sufjan toying with his audience, how much was him simply following his creative instincts without a care, and how much was a self-conscious effort to avoid falling into a rut. Whatever his motivation, the end result is one of modern music’s more endearing and unusual catalogs. His music inhabits many spheres, but he never seems bound by those spheres’ established rhythms, only his own. Along with his prodigious talent, Sufjan’s refusal to follow the script is what makes him such a compelling figure, particularly since his music intersects with worlds where the script is so clearly defined.

One of those is the nebulous realm of Christian rock, a subculture I used to know pretty well. I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment surrounded by a lot of what’s branded as “contemporary Christian music” — first inspirational pop stars like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, then stylistic chameleons like DC Talk and (God help me) Carman, then punkish acts like ska fiends The O.C. Supertones and post-hardcore greats Stavesacre. As I got older and started exploring the vast expanse that is popular music, I gradually lost interest in most of the Christian bands that defined my childhood. At the same time, I struggled with the faith I was raised in and essentially abandoned it in all but name.

Eventually I ended up re-engaging with biblical Christianity, but not the culture factory that’s so often attached to it (and definitely not the political machine that continues to give it a bad name). This isn’t exactly breaking news, but there’s a whiplash-inducing disconnect between the Jesus of scripture and the American institutional church. The Jesus of the gospels seems to share Sufjan’s concerns about “going through the motions of merriment,” preaching against “meaningless repetition” in the Sermon on the Mount and teaching that new wine (that is, the dynamic spiritual life he proposed) requires new wineskins (that is, wiggle room for the church to take different shapes as needed, even radically different shapes). In other words, orthodoxy is about adherence to objective truth and ideals, not rigid forms and homogeny.

That’s why so much of what’s marketed as Christian music today bothers me: It holds unswervingly to a certain cultural context in a way that not only isn’t mandated in the Bible but actually goes against that call to flexibility. There’s a massive worship music industry built around U2-style swells designed to whip people up into an emotional frenzy. (When approached about joining a worship band during his time at The King’s College in New York, a friend of mine was asked outright if he could play like the Edge.) If that’s your speed, fine, but does all worship music have to sound like the same genre — the same song, even — echoing blithely and breathlessly into infinity?

Christian rock is more diverse, but not much more innovative. There have always been compelling artists doing their thing under a Christian banner, from Larry Norman to Starflyer 59, but the bulk of this industry seems geared toward hopping on whatever stylistic bandwagon is hot at the moment and creating a youth-pastor-approved equivalent. (The exception to this changing of the seasons is godawful metalcore bands, which always seem to be in style among Christian kids for some reason.) Former DC Talk member TobyMac exemplifies this genre-jumping phenomenon. He started out mimicking golden-era hip-hop in the late ’80s, then remodeled himself as an alternate-universe Christian Kurt Cobain in the mid-’90s. His new solo album, Eye On It, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, leeches off the EDM craze. You could make a case that imitating the popular styles of the day is a way of being “all things to all people,” but more often than not it plays like a lucrative way of preaching to the choir.

Settling into formula, playing to the constituency, vacuous trend-jumping — sound familiar? Fans of independent music in 2012 deal with the same trifles on a daily basis. It’s a shame because so many people got into underground music as a shelter from callous formulas and comfortable patterns. It seems fair to say independent music is also supposed to be about truth and ideals, albeit more subjective truth and ideals, and not so much about forcing dubstep drops where they don’t belong or partnering with VitaminWater or cashing in on the latest microgenre sweeping the blogosphere. I realize this concept is more arbitrary since there is no Bible for indie music (unless Steve Albini’s “The Problem With Music” counts; “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked,” amen). I’m not saying I’m above it, and I’m not interested in entering the hall of mirrors to discuss whether it’s punk-rock to go against punk-rock ethics because you’re punker than punk. I’m just saying a million terrible chillwave Bandcamps can’t be wrong.

Sufjan stands apart from this madness as much as a musician in his position can. He comes off as awkward and alien, but in a completely different way than the religious right comes off as awkward and alien. He plays along with the indie hype machine when it suits him, but mostly on his own terms. His artistic choices suggest a man dead set against being boxed in creatively, one who’ll disappear from the public eye for years until he can come up with something fresh, but who’ll bleed a subject dry against all reason when he feels like it. That stubborn uniqueness yields great dividends: His music is challenging and refreshing and even frequently good.

But for all its rewards, strident individuality of the Sufjan variety causes its own set of problems. Experiments are necessary for forging ahead, but sometimes experiments fail, and sometimes mad geniuses like Sufjan release those failed experiments anyway. This is part of the reason human beings love patterns so much. We like to have something familiar to latch on to. There is comfort in routine; in many respects, we want to know what we’re getting before we get it. This compulsion isn’t always bad, but if we’re not careful it can suck the life out of something good: A church that strives against being bound by old traditions will often settle comfortably into new ones without realizing it. Radiohead begat Travis begat Keane, and some poor sap bought it looking for a fix. “What’s up?” gives way to “Not much” without a second thought. A rock ‘n’ roll revolution becomes a Nuggets box set.

Even someone like Sufjan, dead set on sidestepping such currents of nature, can’t escape his own tendencies, his inherent Sufjan-ness. Even iconoclasts are bound by certain rhythms. We can change, but real evolution is slow and hard-fought. Regardless of what you believe about how or why it got there, a sense of order is built into us. But so is the desire to shake free from the doldrums in search of, ahem, abundant life. We need machinery to function, but we need personality to live. We need our choruses to sing, but God save us from “going through the motions of merriment.” Given the number of musicians that cover similar ground as Sufjan without even scratching the surface of something powerful, I’m glad he’s around, warts and all, to keep wrestling with what makes us tick.