A tender tribute to the American musical traditions of Christmas and the bleak, cold Midwest winters.
In the early 2000s, Conor Oberst and his Saddle Creek Records cohort had a sort of stranglehold on a kind of new Americana sound, or as some people called it alt-country. So when he, along with Maria Taylor (the other half of Azure Ray), released A Christmas Album in 2002 it made a lot of sense. Originally, it was only released online–something really uncommon then–with all of the proceeds going to the Nebraska AIDS Project, but it was re-released on 180g white vinyl in 2009.
Some reviewers dogged the album for being too traditional; implying that by covering Christmas standards with guitars, pianos and vocals it wasn’t original enough. But when you put on the first track, “Away in a Manger,” it’s hard to believe that they even listened to it. Dripping with the typical Midwestern sadness, the opening track is a paired down, complicated and innovative tribute to classic American Christmas. Halfway through, the song breaks down into people talking and noise–possibly a nod towards Christmas parties.
Conor Oberst’s true gift is his ability to turn traditional genres on their heads. With early Bright Eyes, he was playing around with folk, and as the new millennium began he started to play around with country. With this album, he is experimenting with another wholly American genre: Christmas music. We all know, and maybe love, the Bing Crosby-era Christmas. It’s the one most of us grew up on. By taking these classic standards, and tweaking them just slightly, Oberst is trying to create a new language for Christmas, and in many way he succeeds just as his did with the early Bright Eyes albums.
The album itself is so diverse in its sound and the songs it covers. The songs are eclectic and very representational of the many moods of Christmas. There are both religious-leaning songs and more mainstream selections. But all of them are masterfully reimagined. “Blue Christmas,” the album’s second song and one this reviewer has always had a soft spot for, takes on a more rock & roll vibe with its electric guitars and drums. And on the other end of the spectrum, “White Christmas” is a pared down, vocals and guitar only track that finds power in its simplicity.
So many modern Christmas albums have a kind of sarcastic feel. They are either jokey or too schmaltzy in a way that feels more forced than reverent. But Oberst and company capture a kind of sentimentality for Christmas that feels both authentic and original. A Christmas Album is soaking the kind of melancholy Oberst does so well, and adds a level of emotional connection to the holiday that isn’t often expressed. At its core, it’s the kind of Christmas album that you might put on when staring out a bus window travelling to see your parents or one that fits any snowy, dark day in late December. It’s a tender tribute to the American musical traditions of Christmas and the bleak, cold Midwest winters.