A Christmas Abum
I admit it is strangely funny -- to those of you at all familiar with Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and his music -- to imagine him sitting down and recording an honest, heartfelt version of "Blue Christmas." And you're right, it is funny to think about. But what's even more surreal is that it actually seems to work. Hearing Oberst singing genuinely, with raw emotion, the words take on a whole new meaning: "I'll have a blue Christmas, that's certain / when all those blue memories start hurting..."
This wonderful collection of standard Christmas classics, creatively entitled A Christmas Album, features Oberst and company somehow managing to mix heartbreaking emptiness with well-known Christmas cheer. After all, if we are to believe the statistics, December is the saddest month (though it should be noted, "April is the cruelest month..."). Perhaps what Bright Eyes has done here is to actually tap a bit into that sadness that underlies the singing of these songs, and really, the songs themselves. Yet, it's not a depressing album. It's more of a "realistic Christmas album," if such a thing exists (as opposed to, say, all the fake genuine heartwarming emotions to be found in a Celine Dion or Michael Bolton Christmas record).
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" is , let's face it, a really sad song. However, chances are you won't be moved be any other rendition this year more than you will be the version A Christmas Album has to offer. Though the female vocalist who sings the song remains unnamed in the album's credits -- though is most likely the same girl that sings back up harmonies on Conor's previous albums -- she puts a pure, innocent, sad, and nostalgic spin on her delivery that I am compelled to recommend buying the entire album for this one track alone.
Recorded at Conor's home, A Christmas Album has an intimate and spontaneous feel to its every song, it's almost like hanging out at your friend's house with a bunch of people and then deciding to play some Christmas songs. Only, in this case, your friend just happens to be massively talented and seemingly can't help but make everything he touches these days into something incredible. Most of my friends aren't like that. Okay, I have no friends. But, still, you get the point.
In addition to "Blue Christmas," the album hits high points elsewhere with wonderfully heartfelt versions of "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" and "The First Noel," a slightly rocking version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and my personal favorite song on the entire album, the absolutely heartbreaking cover of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" turned in by Oberst at album's end. "I'll be home for Christmas...if only in my dreams..." actually wouldn't seem that out of line as a lyric on one of Bright Eyes' other songs or albums. It's just, until you hear this album, you probably never thought about it that way.
A Christmas Album ends with a narrator actually reading "The Night Before Christmas" in its entirety, which I personally could have done without -- but it is the only bad note the entire album ever hits, and since it comes at the conclusion of the CD, you needn't skip over it. Just start it all over again.
For some reason, some very large part of me is attracted to things that are at once able to be both sad and hopeful. The movies I prefer to others, the books and music I consume most repeatedly all carry underneath them this motif. This album, then, fits right in with my tastes. Maybe it won't sit entirely well with yours -- after all bittersweet and melancholy aren't two words one usually associates with Christmas (though if you do, I'm right there with you) -- but if you're in any way a fan of Bright Eyes, you should definitely stop by the Saddle Creek Web site and order your copy. I have a feeling it will cheer you up for many lonely Christmases to come.
(Note: this album is only available through Saddle Creek Records' Web site. It is not in stores.)
Saddle Creek Records: http://www.saddle-creek.com/home.html