Confession time: I used to be a male chauvinist of sorts. I thought that women in music served two main purposes—to have songs written about them or to be groupies. Period.
Then my roommate Noel made me listen to Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes in my late teens and that changed my whole attitude, which then opened doors (and my ears) to other female artists. One that really got to me in particular was this cute little Canadian songbird named Sarah McLachlan, whose Surfacing had soulful melodies that made me misty-eyed. (Yeah, I have feelings, so what…?)
I’ve kept up with S-Mac's career since then, and I was somewhat surprised when she announced plans for Wintersong, her first full-length release since 2003’s double platinum Afterglow, and first foray into the holiday cheer market. I love her, but I don’t care much for Christmas (yes, I said CHRISTMAS, not “Winter Holiday” or “Retail Celebration Day” or something stupid like that...it is what it is) so I was skeptical if even she could pull it off.
I just didn’t want to hear her interpretations of “Jingle Bell Rock” (the most nauseating Christmas song ever) or “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I didn’t want to consider her in the same vein as Burl Ives and all the rest—even though most pop stars have done Christmas albums since the dawn of time. Thankfully, according to press interviews, McLachlan said she “doesn’t believe in the commercialism of Christmas” and chose songs that were “more melancholy, which is more my style. Songs that reminded me of family.”
Now we’re talking. And it’s with that in mind that she chose the less cheery of the typical holiday fare, including Joni Mitchell’s “River” (one of the best on the album) and John Lennon’s “So This Is Xmas (The War Is Over),” stamped with her haunting, trademark style.
However, people who decide to pick up the album—whether they are longtime fans or just folks looking for music to get themselves into the holiday mood—will be in for a so-so treat. The title track is an original, but it doesn’t really stand apart from any of McLachlan’s other material. It does, however, distinguish itself among holiday albums, due to the near psychedelic inclusion of multiple backing tracks behind her voice; songs like “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” have an almost Pink Floyd-like vibe with their echoing voices and white noise accompaniments.
But then there’s the lounge lizard vocal delivery of “The First Noel” that may not conjure up any fond memories; at best, it might have you pause from decking the halls long enough to go “Huh, well what do ya know, that’s different,” and then never give it a second thought.
There’s good and bad to be found on Wintersong. It doesn’t make me like Christmas anymore than I already do (which, like I said, ain’t much) but it paves the way for an interesting revelation: McLachlan should seriously consider doing a cover album of songs that shaped her as an artist. Her treatment of “River” and “So This Is Xmas” are true to form and are the best of the tracks (an easy third is “Greensleeves”) so an album full of goodies like that would be an easy sell.
Overall, Wintersong comes off a bit forced in places, but a few great tracks make it worth checking out. Will it become a treasured holiday classic, like Miracle on 34th Street? Doubtful. Will it remind you of how the season brings out the worst in people (as anyone in retail will testify?) That’s doubtful, too. It’s a decidedly different spin on songs you’ve heard a billion times before, and that alone warrants it at least a good listen. Besides, if you end up getting bored with it too quickly, don’t worry: take your copy, wrap it up… now you can check Uncle Harold’s name off your Christmas list!