Who wouldn’t want to show Amy Grant some love at Christmas? Not only is she a likable Christian icon, she also deserves a small mention of her own in any future book of holiday discographies. Back in 1983 – back when Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was mostly a musical ghetto — she surprised the record industry with A Christmas Album, a vinyl platter that unexpectedly topped pop charts, kickstarted the commercial viability of what had become a dormant holiday album category, and went on to become a standard-setting benchmark for the revived genre. Released just before Grant’s fame began shifting into overdrive, it was a perfect self-effacing pop flourish — an amalgam of synthesizers, organ strains, retooled hymnody (“O Little Town”!) and vigorous evangelical earnestness.
A whole slew of other holiday outings followed, the best being 1999’s A Christmas to Remember, and an oddly effecting 1985 left-fielder with Art Garfunkel called The Animal’s Christmas that by now’s been lost to the bleak midwinter. So the announcement of another major project from the holiday studio ace stoked understandable nostalgic anticipation. Especially for fans who scanned the advance track list and discovered “Tennessee Christmas” among the inclusions: the song (penned with ex-Gary Chapman) was the lead-in and a peak moment from her ‘83 set. Thirty-three years later it gets a chance at new life, beginning as well as providing the title to Grant’s brand new audio endeavor.
So what’s the verdict on the now released project? And what’s the deal with the strange, much-publicized decision of Southern Baptist bookstores’ decision not to stock the disc?
First, Grant’s voice retains a reassuring familiarity, so for many listening to these new tracks will feel like a time trip. Unfortunately, Tennessee Christmas (Sparrow/Capitol) also feels too much like a carefully calculated musical behemoth, meticulously orchestrated but also — let’s just say it — contrived. With a smothering avalanche of Christmas releases now upon us (by now even Bob Dylan, R Kelly, and Justin Bieber have ones), maybe it’s too much to expect even Grant to be able to breathe some original life into things. Because she doesn’t. The single “Christmas for You and Me” is more mechanical than rousing, and it’s somehow jarring to realize this is a former CCM songstress chomping through lyrics like “Santa brought me a bottle of wine / Soon we’re going to be feeling fine.” The sensation only worsens with audience shout-outs like “Come on, Y’all!” that would sound lame at a high school pep rally much less here.
It’s easy to envision the teetotalers who are the execs at Lifeway Christian Bookstores stiffening as they previewed to that track at a listening party. Especially when the number sounds more like a jingle than any sort of anthem or ‘art,’ to boot. In fact, it’s easy to guess that Lifeway has a boxful of ambivalent feelings about a unique artist, one they used to regard as a celebrity face for all things Evangelical, who seems to now eschew maintaining much of a marketing identity for faith-promoting purposes and who increasingly opts for lyrics that in terms of Christian content are decidedly low-cal. Lifeway is a Baptist chain, after all, not just a clearing house for creative souls. It caters to shoppers looking for ‘Christian’ music.
And that’s why Grant manager Jennifer Cooke strains credibility when she weighs in at The Washington Post with an op-ed piece lamenting what she frames as rube-like, pietistic attempts to make distinctions between secular and religious art. Calling Lifeway out for choosing not to stock Tennessee Christmas seems an awfully lot like artistic virtue-signaling in light of the fact that digital downloads dominate music merchandising anyway. You half expect Cooke to decry a Baptist ‘basket of deplorables,’ despite the new disc sounding squarely aimed at the Whole Foods versus the Chick Filet crowd. A telling disconnect is present when a denomination can so evidently feel put on the defensive by the culture wars, and yet Grant’s team can still manage to tweet offense at church reps (who also represent a large part of her earliest fan base) who aren’t happy with her sounding more like Carrie Underwood or Tamar Braxton than, well, the Artist Formerly Known as Amy Grant.
Thus it’s hard to sympathize with those taking umbrage at seeming backwoods censorship, even as it is tempting to wonder which music row execs were gutless enough to green light Grant’s presumption at recording what are for her second versions of “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the title track, and — enough already! — “Merry Christmas Darling.” With six or seven Christmas collections under Grant’s belt, you’d think managers of an artist with her stature might worry about things like song catalog integrity, or covers devolving into what sound like retreads, or the wisdom of discounting loyal albeit often uptight fans. Apparently not. In fairness there’s also one shining moment of musical repose amidst so much that comes off as faux, and that’s Isaac Darnell’s quietly poetic “December,” where Grant’s vocal reminds you what stands behind her enduring appeal. Mostly however, Tennessee Christmas just makes you realize how much you miss Amy’s Christmases past.
A better bet this year is the Christmas Party thrown by She & Him (Merge). More so than Grant, this one tips entirely secular, but here no one is RSVP’ing with contrary expectations. And despite what the title implies, its twelve tracks are more relaxed and also more fun, with a lot less annoying candied fruit. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward up their AM radio cabaret game with some splashes of reverb and song choices that suit them well (prizes go to “Christmas Memories,” “Mele Kalikimaka,” and what has to be the first non-grating version of “Run Run Rudolph” ever recorded). Also unexpectedly charming and at points movingly reverent is the musically multicultural showcase that is Gaby Moreno’s Posada (Cosmica). The Guatemalan singer applies a plucky vibrato to material ranging from classics (“Jesús en Penebre”) to Mesoamerican and African-American spirituals to church Latin, and remarkably it all sounds of a piece.
Traditionalists feeling either exhausted or bored by everything current night be surprised by Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Simply Christmas (S-Curve Records). The Hamilton star proves himself capable jazz singer, accompanied by impeccably restrained instrumentation on an insinuating set capped with an elegant “Ave Maria.” A more galvanizing reprieve can be found in John Eliot Gardiner’s new monumental rendition of Bach’s Mass in B Minor (Soli Deo Gloria). It’s a beautiful, clean recording — with Bach being Bach being its own self-validating recommendation.
A last option — middlebrow but melodic — comes from the unlikely winner of “Britain’s Got Talent”, the unpretentious, paisley-wearing but vocally formidable Susan Boyle. A Wonderful World (Syco/Columbia) is soothing, symphonic, and evocative of some sort of Andy Williams /Agnetha Falkstad hybrid. I know… but that’s a description that’ll ring true if you withhold judgement long enough to reach her cover of Abba’s “I Have a Dream.” And Boyd manages to redeem Madonna Louise Ciccone’s “Like a Prayer” from the shackles of MTV hell, a feat that in itself is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Finally, a shout out to a talent show contestant on this side of the Atlantic. One of the most button-pushing (but emotionally satisfying) December performances of the decade remains Mandisa’s unashamedly sentimental and wrongfully overlooked “Christmas Makes Me Cry” (Sparrow, 2012): “I think of Mary and the Virgin Birth / And I’m amazed by how much God thinks we are worth / That He would send His Only Son to die / And sometimes Christmas makes me cry.” There’s a song in the air, indeed.