There’s no doubting the sheer awe-inspiring talent of the voice of Frozen, Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran Idina Menzel.
She has a voice straight from the gods, one that combines fearsome power and delicate beauty, the sort of stage presence money cannot buy, and the kind of vibrant personality that has you believing you and she will be best friends forever, even if the only time you ever see her is on stage or via a television appearance.
That is a lot going on in her favour but is it enough to successfully carry off a Christmas album, a musical undertaking that demands not simply impressive amounts of talent and vibrant joie de vivre but the ability to capture and bottle that most elusive of commodities – Christmas-ness?
It’s not enough to be technically proficient when you’re recording and handing a Christmas album to the festive-loving masses; you have to also somehow infuse it with that magical sense of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Currier and Ives scenes of rustic, heartwarming family bonhomie, snow falling gently to the ground outside, that intangible sense that you are in an otherworldly place known as an Idealised Christmas.
We all know deep down such a place doesn’t exist except in Hallmark movies, carol sing-a-longs and our own reality-escaping imaginations and yet we all want to be there, if only for the month of December, which is why it is incumbent on an artist recording an album of festive fare to make sure their recording conjures this sense of Yuletide bliss.
It’s an almost Sisyphean task granted but Idina Menzel is one of the lucky souls who somehow manages to pull it off, her album Holiday Wishes drawing us into this idealised place almost immediately with the dulcet tones of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, one of the most evocative songs festive songs ever written, somewhat ironically by writer Noël Regney and composer Gloria Shayne, against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Written as a plea for peace, Menzel grants it the hushed, almost irreverent tone we have come to associate with the song, although at times, her bigger-than-Ben Hur vocals do threaten to swamp the song a little.
Mostly though she stays true to the spirit of the original, without being a slavish copier of versions past, a tribute to the effort both she and producer Walter Afanaseiff put into making the album sound as “Christmassy” as possible without simply evoking a thousand Christmas albums past (of which they would be painfully cognisant there would be no point).
Songs like “Silent Night”, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (a duet with Michael Bublé) and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” all succeed in sounding just the way we like them and yet fresh and different all at the same time, thanks largely to Menzel’s gift for investing pretty much everything she sings both her distinctive musical personality but also with near raw-palpable emotion, the sense that this really matters to her, that these songs are coming from the heart.
It’s the mark of a truly great singer of course to not simply technically hit the notes but to give the songs a life all their own, and here Menzel succeeds admirably, as you would pretty much expect she would.
What may surprise some people is the effort given over to re-making songs like “White Christmas”, which is given a melancholic, dream-like quality that brings to the fore the deep longing in the lyrics, and modern classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (co-written by Afanasieff), a playful, jaunty air, the reflection she told TIME of her producer wanting to do something a little different to Mariah Carey’s justifiably iconic version:
“I was [nervous], actually, because I grew up listening to Mariah’s version. But the thing is, Walter Afanaseiff is my producer — he wrote that song with her. It was fun for me to say, ‘Let’s do your song.’ There was an arrangement he always had in his head that he didn’t do that he thought would be really cool.”
These two songs alone make it clear this was no paint-by-numbers recording by Menzel.
Capture the spirit of a perfectly-imagined Christmas yes, but don’t do it at the expense of some creativity too, seems to be the guiding principle at work throughout.
That Menzel has been able to both evoke that mystical sense of the ghost of Christmases Ideal and have some fun interpreting the songs her way makes Holiday Wishes one of those rare festive albums that warms the soul, delights the heart, and impresses with sheer boundless talent and creative zest.