48:04 min • Island • November 16th, 2009
Ordinarily a genre where many artists fear to tread, the seasonal album tends to go largely unnoticed but for the odd festive cracker that can leave a lasting impression. Many have been puzzled by the sudden emergence of a seasonal album by Tori Amos, not least because it comes some 20 years into her controversial career. Having grown up playing carols at Sunday services in her father’s church, this album has seemingly been in the offing for some 40 years, so the question should be, however, why this has arrived so late? Surely, a minister’s daughter whose lyrics have been peppered with religious references, and whose songs have provoked intellectual discourse on many holy themes, would be the ideal candidate to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into a genre that even Celine Dion would now baulk at. Hot on the heels of the uncompromising Abnormally Attracted To Sin, the luminous Midwinter Graces forms a cleansing antithesis to the former’s disenchantment.
Fans of Amos will already have been privy to her heartfelt renditions of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, but the approach on this record is more to reinterpret and realign classic songs. Ever the meticulous researcher, Amos has unravelled the origins of traditional songs and hymns and insightfully deconstructed versions that celebrate many religious systems and beliefs. Consequently, the album offers a fresh, inclusive perspective on some of the more purist hymns and also showcases 5 new songs, scripted by Amos herself, which are in keeping with the theme. Musing more about the Midwinter solstice and celebrating light rather than festive schmaltz seems to have given Amos the winning formula here as the album is easily her most inventive work since 2002’s formidable Scarlet’s Walk.
The opener “What Child, Nowell” is essentially a hybrid between “What Child Is This?” and “The First Noel” (originating originally from South West England and spelled Nowell). Opening darkly, and then sweeping into a lush chorus laden with traditional bells, this sets the tone perfectly. The trusted harpsichord is back and recalls the feel of the 1996 album Boys For Pele. This is buttressed by the absolutely stunning “Holly, Ivy and Rose”, which makes for a surprisingly earnest duet between mother and daughter. Natashya’s gentle and understated vocal is singularly engaging. The song is a blend of the traditional English carol with the German carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”. It features gorgeous string arrangements, traditional bells and the trademark piano. This blueprint of mashing-up the classic with the modern works perfectly on these tracks.
Elsewhere, “Star Of Wonder” is a rework of “We Three Kings”, and is dominated by the Eastern-style arrangement, uplifting into a majestic chorus of traditional percussion and trademark Amos harmonies. The decidedly pagan and medieval sounding “Candle: Coventry Girl” is a duet with Amos’s niece, and the coupling is a revelation. Kelsey Dobyns sounds wondrous next to her aunt. “Jeanette, Isabella” is a rework of the French carol “Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle” with a similar melody, but plays more on the premise of light and rebirth.
Amos’s own compositions begin with the string-laden opening of “A Silent Night With You”, in which she romanticises the melancholic nostalgia that prevails during the season against a backdrop of sweeping strings and military-style drums. Equally as seductive is “Pink and Glitter”, a big brass-band number that stands out on the record, not only because of its brash opening, but also as it is a perfect contrast to the other tracks. “Snow Angel” is a haunting, slow-burner. “A Winter’s Carol” is where Amos really crackles though. Treating various pagan beliefs against tender strings and piano-riffs, inventive melodies and divergent vocals heralds a spectacular return to form and evocative of Under The Pink.
The stand-out track however must be the self-composed “Our New Year”, which channels classic Amos heartbreakers like “I Can’t See New York” and “Putting The Damage On”. Its subject matter of those no longer present in our lives strikes an amazingly personal chord.
This album is truly a unique approach to the theme and it pays in dividends, the only lapse perhaps is “Harps Of Gold” where the combination of synth guitars, traditional percussion and MOR over-production leaves a sickly-sweet aftertaste. However, Amos has crafted an inspired and original seasonal album filled with references of light and rebirth and further celebrates the seasonal tradition by inviting her daughter and her niece along for the sleigh ride to keep it in the family.