I’d heard about the re-release of the Bright Eyes A Christmas Album, originally a charity effort on behalf of the Nebraska AIDS project, it is 10 songs of lo-fi Christmas songs sung by Conor Oberst and Maria Taylor and a spoken word “Twas The Night Before Christmas”, and I’d heard it was terrific.
Mary Magpie was given the Saddlecreek white vinyl version for her 17th birthday by her friends and I figured it was about time I checked it out myself. It was more appropriate than I though it might be. I’ve known Mary since she was 12 and next year she is going to college and that, even for me, even from this distance, a bitter sweet time. Children grow up, there is nothing stopping it, but even so, you want to stop the clock a little, it all happens a little too fast and with the joy of Mary’s success there is also a tinge of sadness, of nostalgia, God knows what her Mom makes of it, but it effects me even if it has no right to do so.
And A Christmas Album is a good album for missing the past. The penultimate song on the album is a perfect “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, my second favorite, at least in its original incantation, Christmas song of all time. Judy Garland sang in it Vincent Minnelli’s “Meet Me In St. Louis” to her sister but in remembrance of the menfolk in her family off at war. Judy sings it as though her heart is going to break with every word, “from now on we all shall be together, if the fates allow” almost passes out in its fraility, in the certain knowledge that the fates will not allow eventually, that in the end we will not all be together and with men at war that eventuality is closer than you think.
Young Men go to war, all children go to college and the break of the unity is similar. For 17 years your life has been a part of this young girls life and as she grows older and becomes a young adult you evolve as well. And every day you wake her and tend to her and every evening she is in her bedroom sleeping and you are nearby guarding her and loving her and then this most intense of relationships bends to the passing of time; to the inevitable movement of days to weeks to years and she is grown and gone. To college and to her own life and to her own children to teach them what she has known from you.
Conor and Maria also add something to this. The two were a couple in 2002 when they recorded this. and twelve years later they are married to other people, and as they mold their voices with so much sweetness and loss and as they reach for that “highest bough” and we listen to them get it, we also know what the fates will allow and what they won’t: the version is one of the best I’ve ever heard, it is so fraught with tenderness it can bring you to tears and as you hear them sing it you know what they are not aware of: this love, or this closeness, these moments, will end soon and we echo on it through the years. It makes me ache with a strange longing for time not to change things so fast, for Mary to still be twelve years old off to interview the Rocket Summer.
It is the best song on the album, though Maria’s opening “Away In A Manger” is very sweet and Conor’s take on Presley’s “Blue Christmas” foregoes the BLUES for the blues, a little moribund, for sure but it is a serious rethinking of the song and works well for me.
When the band picks up the pace they lose me. “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” is too jumped up for its own good and “Silver Bells” –a song I’ve never much cared for, gets a little Carol chorussy. But then, you don’t expect Christmas albums to be particularly good, unless and except if Phil Spector’s name is on it.
Still, Bright Eyes play it straight and when Maria sings “White Christmas” it is so ethereal, the melody seems to be floating in space and only Maria is standing between us and Irving Berlin, only Maria can maneuver the melody. The next song, Conor takes the lead on “Silent Night” and it sounds love a romance between the two, literally rapturous.
The New York Times called A Christmas Album, the saddest Christmas album of all time, but it is less sad than adrift in time; what Bright Eyes understands absolute these timeless songs is that they bring with them their own memories and 12 years after they are recorded, they bring with them the memories of memories; like the memories of childhood and lost loves.
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