I am now on my fourth complete rewrite of this piece. What I’ve found out is that it’s nearly impossible to truly talk about why you love something. I’ve tried to analyze this song from numerous angles. First, I wanted to look at it through the angle of love and romance, especially during winter. After all, what is better to keep one warm than a companion by one’s side? Then, I wanted to view it as a tale of love lost and how the cold of winter dramatizes that. And on my third rewrite, I was going to analyze how the contrast that exists in the instrumentation and lyrics create a song that exemplifies the true meaning of Christmas—a solace in reverie from the cold to come. None of these ideas, however, really got down to the core of what I love about “Barcarola (You Must be a Christmas Tree).”
There are two things I know I love, though—Sufjan Stevens and Christmas.
Sufjan Stevens has a massive, almost daunting discography filled with all kinds of sonic changes, some so different it would be hard to believe they come from the same artist. He has released three albums that I consider to be perfect 10/10 albums. The conceptual, folk rock album Illinois, the bizarre indietronica journey that is The Age of Adz, and the simple acoustic Carrie & Lowell. These are all perfect albums to me for different reasons, but they all are indisputably Sufjan Stevens works. His soft, willowy voice tops the wildly different compositions. His songwriting is still riddled with metaphor and always requires a second to truly grasp. The complete and utter control of his music and raw talent are displayed in all three. Check the credits for Illinois, it seems like the only thing he didn’t do on that album was the backing vocals and string parts.
I also love Christmas and the holidays at large. I live in Ohio. I’m no stranger to winter. Months of cold, unbearable weather, and every couple weeks Mother Nature (or perhaps “Sister Winter”) takes a day or two away from you and forces you to stay inside. The holidays alleviate his. They add much needed and greatly appreciated warmth and comfort. Time to spend with family and friends. And especially time to reflect. How could I have gone through my year differently? What am I doing to prepare for next year? This reflective nature is a double-edged sword. It can bring one to better themselves, or it can tear them down and leave them depressed. There’s a certain mysticism to this feeling that especially draws me to the season and motivates my love for it.
Now, luckily for me, my two loves don’t have to be separate. Sufjan Stevens has two Christmas albums and a whopping 100 Christmas songs between them. The songs were recorded gradually over the course of a decade, and as a result there are songs in almost every style he’s known for. 2006’s Songs for Christmas features folky Christmas songs that are in-line with the style of music Sufjan initially got popular for. 2012’s Silver & Gold starts the same way and then switches to the experimental electronic sound he had begun working with on Age of Adz and All Delighted People.
So why “Barcarola (You Must be a Christmas Tree)?”
I first got into Sufjan Stevens in 2015 when he released Carrie & Lowell. I fell in love with the heartbreaking lyrics and the simple instrumentation. I associated the album heavily with one of my all-time favorite pieces of media—the video game Life is Strange. They were sonically and thematically very similar. My association with this game and album greatly bolstered my adoration of Carrie & Lowell and thus motivated me to check out the rest of his discography. Throughout 2015, I dug through much of his discography and found out that he had released two massive Christmas albums. I was excited to delve into them and see what they had in store.
Prior to listening to these albums, I always listened to Christmas music filled with bombast. The jazz and pop giants of the past always sold Christmas as a happy, joyous time. The saddest Christmas music I was likely familiar with before Sufjan Stevens was “Christmas Lights” by Coldplay or maybe the right version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song that should always be played in a melancholically. I was, and still am, a fairly depressed person. When I started adding Sufjan songs to my Christmas playlist, they seemed out of place among the jovial tunes I was familiar with.
This finally brings us to the moment where I believe my adoration for this song stems from. It’s Christmas Eve of 2015, and I’m laying in my bed with Christmas music playing from a speaker. It’s going through all the bangers, “Sleigh Ride,” “We Wish You The Merriest.” I still haven’t quite shaken that childhood feeling of excitement one feels on Christmas Eve knowing that tomorrow there will be bundles of mystery under the tree. These songs aren’t doing much to help quell that excitement and get me to sleep. My playlist plays “Barcarola.” The soft instrumental and Sufjan’s frail vocals combined with the choral vocals lull me closer to sleep. The feeling was robbed of me almost immediately when, after the soft piano outro that closes the song faded out and “Run Rudolph Run” wakes me right back up.
I believe that this is where my desire to write about this song comes from. It does the one thing that I love in music, especially emotional music, and that’s envelope the listener in the emotion it’s conveying. It’s what I love about Sufjan Stevens and it’s what I love about other artists like Beach House and American Football.
The song itself is gorgeous. Like many of his original Christmas songs, he takes elements from songs already in the Christmas music canon and subverts them. In this case, he uses choral vocals in a song with lyrics that traditionally would be sung by an individual. The lyrics themselves are depressing and discuss the tribulations found in a relationship being lost. There’s little reference to Christmas in the lyrics, besides mentioning the word snow and the lyric the title derives from, “You must be a Christmas tree/You light up the room.”
Sufjan also plays with the instrumental in ways that give the song a unique feel that complements the lyrics. The song repeatedly builds up and is then subsequently brought back down to reality. This is perhaps to represent Sufjan falling in and out of this love. In the climactic moment of the song, the instrumental buildup is probably best described as triumphant until Sufjan ends the song with the revelation: “You said you needed me/But I know…” The song then abruptly gets very quiet, until it fades into a simple piano outro.
“Barcarola (You Must be a Christmas Tree)” is a gorgeous Christmas song detailing a love lost. Sufjan’s lyrics are poignant and emotional. The instrumental is triumphant but somber. And it comes together to create an intense, emotionally-powerful song that pulls the listener in and doesn’t let go until the final piano notes are played. It’s a staple of my Christmastime, and I hope it, and the rest of Sufjan’s Christmas music, can become a staple of yours.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.
Remy Johnson // student, avid music fan, golden retriever advocate, follow my twitter @RemyJohnson_