While it’s not necessarily the case for everyone, Christmas usually has the aura of an up close-and-personal holiday in which friends and family draw cheerily near, chestnuts roast on an open fire (Northern Hemisphere, at least; in the Southern, think a turkey on the Weber BBQ) and we can finally draw a breath after another hectic year of life doing its thing.
It’s an appealing idea and for a fortunate few it’s very much how it all plays out; for a lot of us, however, the race to Christmas feels like frenetic rush, tinsel-draped, festively joyful and awash in heady sentiment, but a rush nonetheless.
So, it’s a joy to sit down and listen, drink in hand, to Norah Jones’ eight studio, and first Christmas, album I Dream of Christmas, which draws us into a deliciously chilled place where all our sugar plum laced dreams can actually stop, pause and take in the relaxed bliss of the most wonderful time of the year.
With a trademark jazz sound throughout, and Jones’ duskily emotive vocals suitably lush and awash in festive cheer, this is an album that possesses the kind of emotional intimacy you hope will be yours at Christmas.
It’s not just the restrained but emotionally rich arrangements which gives off a warmly encompassing glow.
The choice of songs, many penned by Jones herself, also plays a considerable role, with almost all the lyrics directly referencing the snug closeness of Christmas with those you love and the importance of many of the sentiments associated with the season, which might get passed off with glib repetition, but which when you stop to think about them, really mean a great deal more than we credit them for.
Take the often noted need to be with that special someone at Christmas.
Singing about it may have made Mariah Carey the darling of the season, but the reality is that this time of the year is when many people want to be with the one they love, something that, especially with COVID continuing to close off borders and limit travel, is not always possible at the moment.
Both the opening track, “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)” penned by Jones, which a little mournfully observes “I could call you on the phone / Sing a song, it feels like home / Instead of feeling all alone / This Christmas” as the singer tries to stave off the festively lonely blues, making this original track the perfect thematic twin to “Blue Christmas”, a traditional song by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, which taps into the same sense of being away from those you love at a time when you most need them with you.
Jones pours her sense of loss at the deprivations caused by COVID, which meant many people were apart last Christmas, fervent wishes to be together notwithstanding, into “It’s Only Christmas Once a Year” which begs someone she missed last Christmas to make the effort to come home for this year’s celebration.
Even these slightly bleak moments feel as if they could be turned in an instant by Jones whose voice conjures mournfulness and reassurance in the same nuanced breath.
The singer’s love of the season, which no doubt accentuates her sadness when family and friends can’t be with there, comes to the jazzily related fore in “Christmas Don’t Be Late” which was originally written by Ross Bagdasarian, performing as David Seville, as a lovely song sung with his cartoon virtual band, Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Jones by way of gloriously laidback contrast invests the song with an eager wistfulness, starting off the song with a catchily chilled rendition of “Jingle Bells” before going into a song that celebrates the season with a fervour that tucks neatly into a track that could easily find itself at home at 3am as the last embers linger in the fireplace.
“Christmas Glow”, another original by Jones, hints at something more than simply quaffing eggnog with the song’s lyrics more than hinting at the need for the kind of closeness not normally found in Christmas specials.
This call to a particular kind of understandable intimacy – all that festive romanticism can’t help but make you desire closeness of all kinds – is followed by traditional track “White Christmas”, which Jones gives a casually cheery sheen, and the most charmingly pulled-back take on “Winter Wonderland” which eschews the track’s customary bubbly exuberance for the kind of vibe more suited to quiet nights at home.
For all that change of pace, the song retains its vivacious love of the season, something that Jones clearly shares with songs like “Run Rudolph Run” (Johnny Marks, Marvin Brodie), “Christmas Time Is Here” (Lee Mendelson, Vince Guaraldi) and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” (Frank Loessner) all giving voice to a passionate love of the most wonderful of the year, which is clearly far more than a catchphrase to Jones.
In fact, so vibrantly obvious is Jones’ affection for Christmas that the entire album feels like the kind of love letter to the season that should be played at every available opportunity.
I Dream of Christmas is, if it’s not too audacious to say so, pretty much the perfect Christmas album, one that acknowledges that what we want isn’t always what we get, especially when a pandemic is running riot, at this time of the year but which happily says that hope does spring eternal and that, with a lushly relaxed beat that will make you feel like the season has wrapped you in a big, hot cocoa hug, and will remind how precious and beautiful this most magical of times can be.