Indie songsmith Sufjan Stevens may be known more for ambition than follow-through.
The 31-year-old plays about 20 different instruments, holds a masters degree in creative writing, and seems to know no other form than the concept album. A couple of years ago, Stevens took on an epic project: to write, perform, and record an album about each of the 50 states. He made it through his native Michigan, then Illinois, then detoured into his Christian faith, with the song cycle Seven Swans. Since then, he’s mentioned his interest in writing a song cycle on birds, and perhaps also penning some classical ensemble pieces, but now — in the middle of a tour — he’s just released a box set of Christmas tunes. He recently told one audience, “Forget the 50 states.” No kidding.
Packaged in five e.p.’s, Songs for Christmas is quite hefty at 42 tracks, comprising the standard canon of seasonal classics plus some Stevens originals for good measure. Stevens had amassed the music over the course of five years. He distributed it only to friends and family, many of whom took part in the recording process. As explained in the set’s extensive liner notes, Stevens decided to release all of the songs together to document his growth as an artist. The chronology also makes understandable his approach to the time of year, a natural prompt to look back. After all, the project started in the wake of 9/11.
As both an avowed Christian and a true-blue indie hero, Stevens manages an otherwise impossible coup: making old, boring carols interesting and producing schmaltz-free originals. He uses neat arrangements and instrumentation to rework the familiar melodies, running the gamut of his now-trademark range, from hushed folk to polyphonic exuberance. Unlike a majority of other holiday albums, Stevens’, you can tell, was done out of sincerity, not necessity.
There are too many songs and nuances to be considered here — possibly a good thing, so you can approach the collection, like the holiday itself, with your own baggage. While the most developed tracks, naturally, fall on the final disc — they were recorded most recently — it doesn’t get much better than his 2001 duet with partner Matt Morgan on “Amazing Grace.” Armed with a couple of guitars and a banjo, Stevens and Morgan make the track humble, repentant, and transcendent, traits we could all use as the season rolls around.