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But at his best—on his disquieting originals where he is content to be simply Sufjan Stevens rather than the voice of hipster irony—Stevens probes the unsettling conundrums that face anyone who wishes to come to grips with the Xmas/Christmas experience in its totality.

Occasionally, the uneasiness gives way to unalloyed gratitude. "Christmas in the Room," a charming ode to the pleasures of peace and quiet and simply being present with the one you love, reminds us of the simple truths that joy cannot be purchased off the shelf, and that meaning comes from relationships, not things.

Still, the chill of harsh, inescapable Xmas – the tug of war between the Christian ideal of the nativity and peace on earth and the sagging disappointment of crass commercialism and exploitation – is never far from the surface. It's most evident on "Justice Delivers Its Death," a song that borrows its first verse from "Silver and Gold," a bit of pure hokum that Burl Ives croons on a '60s "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Christmas special as Claymation elves make toys for good little girls and boys. But that less-than-inspiring beginning quickly gives way to something dark and somber:

Oh, I'm getting old
Oh, I'm getting old
Everyone wishes for youth
How have I wasted my life?
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth

It's a cry of the heart, a groaning not quite too deep for words; a sigh of deep longing for something better and an expression of sorrow for a world that largely misses the point, year after holly-jolly year. And that little bit of holiday cheer gives way in turn to the apocalyptic ruminations of:

Lord, come with fire
Lord, come with fire
Everyone's wasting their time
Storing up treasure in vain
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth

That's the danger and the unexpected pleasure of Sufjan Stevens. You come looking for elves and mistletoe, and he thunders like an Old Testament prophet.

He saves the weirdest and saddest and best for last. The twelve-and-a-half minute "Christmas Unicorn," the choral nightmare that finishes the long proceedings, is as strange, syrupy, precious, and disturbing as it sounds, its cloying sentimentality slowly giving way to the contrapuntal chorus of "Love will tear us apart," a deliberate evocation of the song of the same name from post-punk band Joy Division. Here Stevens makes the connection between fantasy and disillusionment even more clear. We live in a bright, loud, make-believe world of talking snowmen and cheery elves, marshmallow fluff snow and tinsel, but it cannot disguise the desperation and hollowness at the heart of the frantic celebration.

It's the most deeply conflicted Christmas music you'll ever hear, the most truthful, and some of the best. It works at 3:00 p.m., when you're looking for that little festive boost to get you through the work day, and it works at 3:00 a.m., when there's nobody there but your darkest thoughts, and when you see the beautiful, broken, glorious, fallen world with sudden and terrible clarity. With any luck, we'll be graced with another 50 or 60 songs in the next few years. They will probably be songs of longing and loneliness, beauty and joy, with perhaps an origami flying reindeer set thrown in for good measure. Chances are, we'll be baffled and moved.

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