Thursday, November 29, 2007

One more Christmas Offering

A decade and a half ago, Michael W. Smith blessed us with his first Christmas album. Departing from his pop/CCM vein, MWS moved into the arena of cantata, delivering an album full of choir and orchestra, with tender moments like the Amy Grant solo on "All is Well," and the excitement of the synth/brass pop version of "Angels We Have Heard on High." I had been a MWS fan before, but that album raised his credit with me.

Then he went back to pop music. And it was still good pop music, some of the best in the world of CCM, but it seemed as if he'd given us a glimpse of his potential, only to pull back into the middle of the crowd.

He eventually came out with a second Christmas album, which, while going in a different direction than the first, was also very good, and a staple in my Christmas rotation.

Through the years, though, he has moved in the arena of pop - drums, synths, electric guitars, even through a couple of decent worship albums. And it's all been good; it just never seemed to live up to the potential shown in his first Christmas album.

This year he released It's a Wonderful Christmas. It showed up in the Amazon box the other day.

And finally, all these years later, I think he's done it. He's gone back to the symphonic, choir and orchestra mix that made the first one so exquisite. While not entirely leaving the pop world behind, MWS has loaded this album with charging brass, lush strings, full choirs, bells and tympani, all coming together to create a gorgeous, hook-filled, exciting, tender, deep, rich masterpiece that runs like a soundtrack to Christmas. At moments it plays like the Nutcracker, at others like David Foster, and still at others it's the opening of your favorite holiday specials. It is powerful, it is deep, it is fun, it is, truly, amazing.

And it's all new. Which, as I mentioned before, is risky. How to add something to the collective consciousness of Christmas. How to write new music that fits in with the classics, yet adds something fresh and different. And MWS does it just fine, thank you very much. Yes, there are tastes of Joy to the World, and hints of other well-known standards. But mostly, it's brand new, yet classic enough that it seems to fit well into the Christmas mold.

Oh, and this. One of the criticisms MWS often receives is for his nasal voice, that works somewhat well in some pop, but doesn't mesh well with a more choral-driven sound. I admit that the only place I cringe in the first Christmas album is when, in the opening number, the choir swells into a great crescendo, and then gives way to MWS in solo, his voice clashing with the richness of the choir. But something is different here. It's almost as if MWS went out and got some voice lessons, or he's mellowing as he grows older. I don't know. He still sounds like MWS, but his voice is rounder, it blends better. He actually almost sounds like a decent soloist to be fronting this group.

In case you hadn't figured it out, I really like this album. And I think you will, too.

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