Ah, Christmas. A time to gather with family and friends, and sing along to the hits of Roy Wood, Slade and, but of course, Sir Cliff Richard. It’s almost enough to make you wish for the cold, blustery nights of February to come along and blow all the false bonhomie away.
Thankfully, there’s more to Christmas music than an urge to rock around the tree. If you’re looking for an alternative to the one acknowledged classic Yuletide album, Phil Spector‘s A Christmas Gift To You, then there’s plenty to choose from. Indeed, if you have enough time to dedicate to it, there’s a 5 CD, 37 track Sufjan Stevens collection full of Christmas tunes out there.
It’s Stevens that most comes to mind when listening to Bright Eyes‘ festive collection, first released as a download-only charity album in 2002, and now given the full Saddle Creek reissue treatment. Not least because there’s an uncanny vocal similarity between Conor Oberst and Stevens, but also in the way that these 11 traditional songs (not carols, more Christmas standards) are treated so conventionally and reverently.
Originally recorded before Oberst made his big commercial breakthrough with 2004’s double release of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, A Christmas Album is self-consciously dreamy, downbeat and, frankly, more than a little bit miserable. It’s certainly not the album to listen to if you want to get a party started, as only God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen kicks up the pace, but there’s something weirdly beguiling about the intimate atmosphere created by these songs.
There’s a huge cast of supporting players too – the entire album is co-arranged by Maria Taylor, and there are guest appearances from various members of Rilo Kiley, Cursive, Tilly And The Wall and Oberst’s long-time collaborator Mike Moggis. Taylor also takes lead vocals on a few tracks, including a haunting introduction on Away In A Manger and a gorgeous, hushed take on White Christmas.
Blue Christmas is the most typical Bright Eyes song on A Christmas Album, Oberst’s cover of the old Elvis Presley number sounding heartbroken, frayed and genuinely quite moving, while Little Drummer Boy becomes quite frightening, with Oberst and Taylor’s voice sounding more and more muffled and as static and distorted percussion takes the song over.
At times, it all becomes a bit too gloomy – Silent Night and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas are tortuously slow and dirge-like, not helped by Oberst’s rather nasal vocals, while Silver Bells suffers from the opposite problem, being rather too sugary and sickly sweet to digest properly. For a really festive feel, the closing The Night Before Christmas simply features a old man reading the titular story to a piano backing – it doesn’t really bear up to repeated listens, but it produces the requisite warm and cosy glow.
Like 99% of all other Christmas albums, this will be mostly redundant come 27th December, but if you’re looking for a rather glum festive alternative to the usual Christmas fare, it’s worth checking out.