(4.5/5) When Tori Amos announced the release of a Christmas album the consensus was largely ‘what took you so long?’ rather than ‘why would you want to do that?’ Anyone who has been a lifelong fan knows that, as a ‘Minster’s Daughter’, Tori’s music is littered with Christian references and themes, and it is her early experiences in the church that have framed both her perspective and her lyrical output. From explorations of the virgin/whore paradigm in Christianity, to the question of whether Jesus was a woman, or the occasion of inviting Lucifer to tea, Amos has habitually used Christian themes and iconography to a degree that makes a Christmas album (or ‘winter solstice album’ as Tori describes it) somewhat inevitable. Let’s face it, Tori has become in recent years the gift that keeps on giving, like a latter-day Mrs Claus, releasing albums that cram more songs on an eighty-minute disc than one thought possible, and who has in fact already released an album this year, Abnormally Attracted to Sin.
The ‘Christmas album’ as a medium has a long and tangled history. At some point almost every artist tackles it with varying degrees of success. Artists from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, Celine Dion to Mariah Carey, and Josh Groban to Sufjan Stevens have had a bash, but more often than not they are such saccharine, treacly affairs that one listen is so sickly it takes all of Boxing Day to recover. This could have easily been the case with Midwinter Graces, but then Tori Amos approaches projects like this in an entirely unique way. Her covers album, Strange Little Girls (2001) was a collection of songs written and sung by men which Tori completely reinvented, both sonically and by singing them from the perspective of a woman, with thrilling results such as her take on Eminem’s ’97 Bonnie and Clyde’ and Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’. On her greatest hits collection, Tales of a Librarian (2003), she chose songs that had indeed not been singles and whose chronology was based on the US library’s Dewey Decimal System.
The result is perhaps one of her most accomplished albums this decade, reminding this listener of the dark, hymn-like quality of her best album, Boys for Pele (1996). Tori mentioned that Midwinter Graces ‘embraces the idea of the rebirth of light’ and it is this theme that ties the work together. References to light are heard throughout – torches, candles, silver skies, solar fire, and starry heavens – light that offers a sense of hope and renewal, but that also celebrates Christmas as a time for joy and festivity, referring to the titular Graces who are symbols of such. The album also contains many references to childhood - Christmas being especially magical for children – as Tori explores motherhood through the eyes of the Virgin Mary as well as a mother’s joy of Christmas through the eyes of her own daughter (Natashya makes an unexpected cameo on Holly, Ivy and Rose that leaves this listener in no doubt that the next generation is equally bestowed with musical gifts). There is also a sense of nostalgia, a reminder of Christmases past.
The album opens with text from the traditional hymn ‘What Child is This?’ introducing Christ’s birth but also the joy of motherhood. Tori weaves through this the refrain of The First Nowell, in a more traditional melody that has been slightly rearranged. The word Nowell comes from different sources – the French ‘Noël’ meaning Christmas, the Latin ‘natalis’ meaning ‘birth’, but possibly the compound "neu" meaning "new" and "helle" meaning light from the Gaulish language, which introduces the theme of ‘the rebirth of light’. The harpsichord is gloriously back, as strings sumptuously underpin the chorus. From this celebration of a child born comes Star of Wonder, a decidedly modern take on We Three Kings. Stripping the traditional melody and words of this carol, Tori infuses Eastern strings and rhythms to signify the origins of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Again the lyrics are centred around the significance of light – “some say a star will rise again/in the hearts of human kind/some say we have been in exile/what we need is solar fire”.
This lyrics ties in with one from the proceeding song - ‘what child is this who now awakes in every heart each morning’ - suggesting the idea that current US Conservative Christianity has regressed back into the dark ages, and instead offers the tenet that we are all Christ-like and that Christ is light, love and hope. A Silent Night With You is an attempt to capture the sad nostalgia everyone experiences at this time of year, and as the first of Tori’s own compositions it is a an accomplished Christmas song. Romantic strings and military Drummer Boy-style percussion buffets her voice as she sings of Christmases past. It is unclear where the intro to Coventry Carol, called Candle, originates from – it may be Tori’s own composition or from an obscure traditional song - but it continues the themes of light and motherhood in it’s refrain “are the children’s safe now?” It is a delightful piano, brass, and double bass segue into Coventry Carol, a lament of the women of Bethlehem whose young son’s would be slaughtered by King Herod’s soldiers. It is a duet with Tori's niece and is traditionally arranged with medieval instruments – a lute, medieval recorder, and percussion – as well as brass in a faithful version of the original 16th century carol.
Holly, Ivy and Rose is one of the many highlights of the album, an interpolation of the traditional English carol and the German carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming). Full of pizzicato strings, piano, and traditional percussion, it features as previously mentioned a delightful sung interplay between mother and daughter, with the implication that the young rose in question is in fact Tori’s daughter, the child on the threshold of adolescence. Perhaps one of the very few missteps on Midwinter Graces comes in the form of Harps of Gold. It is not entirely clear if the verses are written by Tori herself but the refrain is from Gloria in excelsis Deo. The problem is a sonic one here, with the use of synths, Hammond organ, and the odious and anachronistic-sounding electric guitar of Mac Aladdin (why? why? why?). The result is a rather hackneyed attempted at an upbeat Christmas song of the type that Christian Evangelists sing with guitars and tambourine.
Things are quickly redeemed by the second Amos composition here, Snow Angel, as a haunting piano riff carries a delicate vocal that is wrapped in a luscious string arrangement. It is the type of elegiac ballad we have come to expect from Tori, as she conjures a mythical figure that delights children during the long, dark months of winter. Also on the theme of children is the French carol Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle (Bring A Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle). Guitars and piano arpeggios in a three/eight time signature shimmer brightly like silvery light as Tori sings the story of two milkmaids who stumble on the baby Jesus sleeping in the hay. Tori’s version perhaps takes the most liberties in terms of melody (which is similar to the original but not entirely faithful), though the result is quite a delightful rumination on motherhood and the joy of a newborn child as well as playing on the theme of light and birth.
Pink and Glitter is the third song written solely by Tori, a sassy jazz number with full brass band and a fifties swing sound that calls to mind Irving Berlin and the film White Christmas (1954). It is a wonderful contrast to the rest of the album, and continues the dichotomy between traditional carols and modern Christmas songs, a contrast starkly made by Emmanuel (O come, O come, Emmanuel) which follows it. This medieval setting of the song, with the use of homophonic chords, completely transforms the carol into a more sombre piece. There are some delightful harmonics here, with piano and double bass underpinning each note of the melody (as in the homophonic style) breathing new life into this oft-heard seasonal favourite. Tori weaves in her own verses, again recalling the elements of light and hope in the appearance of a dove and the coming spring.
The album closes with the last of two Tori compositions – Winter’s Carol and Our New Year. The former is a wonderful take on the traditional carol though sounding unmistakably Tori (using a similar piano riff from both Seaside and Ophelia). Lyrically and melodically this is the best Tori has sounded for some time, proving that original Christmas compositions need not sound hackneyed or derivative. Again the theme of light’s rebirth comes in the line ‘the sun is reborn from the starry heavens’ offering a sense of thematic cohesion. The album closes with Our New Year, a wonderfully nostalgic piece which recalls the wonderful paean to her brother from The Beekeeper (2004), Toast. This piano ballad very much fits sonically with Tori’s last four studio albums, and in the same way as Toast it is about the memory of those we have lost, as Tori says ‘you have to acknowledge that there are people that aren't with you anymore, so there's a song that does that’. It is a wonderfully bittersweet close to the album.
Surprisingly, Midwinter Graces may be the most bold and inventive musical statement from Tori Amos since 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and it really does mark a return to form. It also illustrates that Tori can have restraint when putting a track list together, foregoing the eighteen-song format of her past three records for a decidedly more cohesive musical statement. It proves once again that there are very few musicians who are constantly willing to challenge both themselves and their audience. Midwinter Graces is a brilliant addition to the Tori canon, and a shining example of what a Christmas album should be.
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