Even though Christmas has already passed, one of our favorite traditions is to buy a Christmas album or two after Christmas, put them away unwrapped with all of the Christmas decorations, and then find new music ready to go next year. A few last Christmas album reviews this week may help you put away the right albums for Christmas 2009.
Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s song “This Shirt” (from 1989’s State of the Heart) appeared on an early 1990’s compilation called The Hitchhiker Exampler which featured New Country artists. The song—lyric, melody, and Carpenter’s voice—wrapped you in the warmth, comfort, familiarity, and memory of your old, favorite shirt.
Chapin-Carpenter takes that same warmth, comfort, familiarity, and memory to her holiday release, Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas. You feel as if she’s sitting in front of your fireplace, picking out these tunes on guitar only for you, as the fire crackles, the Christmas tree sparkles, and the mulled wine warms you against the blowing snow outside the lodge in the middle of the woods on the road to Grandma’s house.
It’s a good place to be, and with many of these songs, it only seems right. However, having come to appreciate Chapin-Carpenter for her songwriting and performing, Twelve Songs lacks an arc in style, emotion, or pace. She never pushes a rockier tone; she never breaks out of the country hymn-like style. The album cover recalls a Manheim Steamroller or Narada disc, which can easily become background Christmas music while eating Christmas cookies at some obligatory holiday gathering. Chapin-Carpenter comes dangerously close to that same feel with her Twelve Songs.
But artists who are planning their 2009 Christmas release would do well to pay attention here to Chapin-Carpenter’s songwriting. Her original tunes, either solo penned or written together with John Jennings, point to spiritual truths of Christmas, recall Christmas portraits captured in our memories, and tell tales with ache and awe and love. Rather than returning to all of the well-trodden tunes, artists could pick up these songs, breathe their own life into them, and help create the new Christmas classics.
“Come Darkness, Come Light” never mentions Jesus but tells His story all the same—and tells the story of how we come to Jesus with conflicting emotions and views. Like Band Aid’s “Do They Even Know It’s Christmas?” “Bells are Ringing” paints the disparate scenes between the well-off Christmas gatherings and the poor and lacking marking another day. Yet, the bells ring out with the same Gospel hope for all, like a call to go and serve others with that goodwill toward all men of which the angels sang.
“Christmas Carol” lets us see into Chapin-Carpenter’s spiritual walk (“I haven’t been to church since God knows when/I’m not someone who usually attends”) while seeing that she’s still hanging her hope on Christmas—perhaps even the Christ child—that there could be peace on earth.