Saturday, December 23, 2006

"Get Behind Me, Santa" / Sufjan Stevens

Considering that every Christmas album on the market seems to involve tired rehashes of the same old standards, I must say I've warmed up to Sufjan Stevens's new Christmas album. It's packed with 42 songs, a collection of six EPs that Stevens released privately every Christmas for the past few years; now he's whacked them together in a box set. Many of the tracks are relatively faithful renditions of standard carols, which Sufjan delivers with simple acoustic arrangements and without irony -- now there's a startling concept -- and the earnest breathiness of his voice makes this go down surprisingly well.

I don't know exactly what to make of Sufjan Stevens. His music seems unclassifiable to me -- it sure isn't rock 'n' roll, or jazz, or blues of any kind; just call it alternative, I guess, and hope that folks'll be open-minded enough to appreciate the odd soundtrack-lush instrumentation and the quirky slice-of-life lyrics. But what really interests me about Sufjan's take on Christmas songs is that he seems to know he's swimming against the current, that our skeptical world prefers "bummer" Christmas songs and politically correct generic "holiday" music. And something about that bothers Sufjan.

"Get Behind Me, Santa" is a bouncy, ska-flavored number that skips around the culture clash Christmas has become. It's almost like a typo for "Get Behind Me Satan", so right away you know Santa is not coming down anybody's chimney unchallenged. He starts off with a jaundiced description of a trumped-up version of Santa Claus -- "I know what you're doing to me, boy / You move so fast, like a psychopathic color TV / With your Christmas bag and your jolly face/ And the reindeer stomping all over the place" -- but a second voice, a wobbly but sincere voice, pops up to protest "You make it sound like Christmas is a four-letter word." The first voice scoffs at the idea that Christmas is all about family or shopping or carols, but the other voice protests, "You've got it wrong because I'm just another regular guy / Simply 'cos I've affection for the Yuletide."

The song gets tangled up in its own arrangement, which builds up to backing vocals spelling out the word C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S; Sufjan's not going to peach to us about the meaning of Christmas. We've got to figure out for ourselves which side we want to come down on. But the light-heartedness of this track, that catchy horn section, the goofy organ vibrating through the bridge, makes me want to come down on the side of just being happy.

This is a fun song and you can dance to it; it isn't dripping with fake sentimentality or hipster scorn. The main thing is that Santa Claus is coming to town, and hey, it's the holiday season -- let's cut each other some slack, for once.

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