A completely welcome surprise in my mailbox yesterday was a new Christmas album from silver-throated Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong (Arista Records). I didn’t even know she had anything new coming out, so I was excited to pop this baby in the player and hear what Sarah has to offer us this Advent season (even though we just started November).
Does this foray into seasonal bliss sound like it may be a bad idea for McLachlan? As one reviewer wrote, “An album like this could cement [her] as a middle-of-the-road crooner ready for the Andy Williams Christmas Show, but there’s more beneath the surface of Wintersong than just Christmas chestnuts, over-roasting on an open fire.” I completely agree, and absolutely love the elegant, ethereal collection that she has created here with longtime producer Pierre Marchand.
I know that your sentiments on Christmas music can diverge in two very different ways. I have to admit, there are days when I’ll be moseying along in Macy’s and “Here Comes Santa Claus” will come on and I will want to run for shelter. Now that it’s November, I’ll have to make a mental note to avoid the mall as much as possible until January for that very reason.
But there are so many Christmas songs that are quiet and lovely and meaningful, that make me feel like all can be right with this world. Sarah picks those songs. She picks the ones that underscore the stillness, the mystery, and some original compositions with an air of bittersweetness. There is not a single track on here that I want to skip, no gaudy garish upbeat tracks with cracking whips and ho-ho-ho’s that seem out of character to the collection.
First and foremost you must listen to her wrenchingly sad and flawlessly beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” (oh, and I’ve decided to plunge into Joni Mitchell, but that’s another post). It could be one of my favorite songs of the year. If a note can break your heart, they way she tackles the line about “I would teach my feet to fly . . . away” could do it for me.
The album opens with a fairly straightforward cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by Lennon (complete with a chorus of children in the background), and sandwiched in between her lovely arrangements of old standards is a brand-new song that she penned, the title track “Wintersong.” Also a longtime five-star favorite of mine, “Song For A Winter’s Night” (written by Gordon Lightfoot) has previously only been available on her B-Sides, Rarities, & Other Stuff album, and is a wistful & welcome addition to this album.
The songs have a uniqueness in the production and the arrangements that are distinctly McLachlan. Whether it is her new melody to the verses in the minor keys of “Greensleeves/What Child Is This” or the bright banjo plucking (a la Sufjan) in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” she adds a distinct fingerprint to each song. The album closes with a melancholy and simple version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” (with Diana Krall accompanying Sarah on piano). You can almost see the snowflakes falling.
There is a spare, glistening beauty to this effort, and I can seriously see myself listening to every Christmas for years to come.
River (Joni Mitchell cover) – Sarah McLachlan