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The Student News Site of California State University, Stanislaus

Signal

The Student News Site of California State University, Stanislaus

Signal

A blue Christmas

Bright Eyes’ “A Christmas Album” was released in stores for the first time last month. Its existence will always remain bizarre to me, but in 2002 frontman Conor Oberst and Maria Taylor of Azure Ray got together with a plethora of musicians and other Bright Eyes regulars to arrange the album at the benefit of the Nebraska AIDS Project.
2002 is also the year Oberst released “Read Music/Speak Spanish” with Desaparecidos, and arguably one of his most defining albums, “Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground,” with Bright Eyes. It’s still hard to imagine this young Oberst – politically-charged, neurotic and skeptical – taking on the consumerist and religious songs of Christmas with anything short of cynicism.
But the album stands as its own proof – a minimalist work devoid of the artistic gimmicks that often accompany popular takes on these kinds of traditional songs – and I can’t help appreciating, loving even, the idiosyncrasy of it. Oberst and Taylor bring out the sirine loneliness, the dark, cold night of winter in their arrangements.
Oberst’s unapologetically rough, shaky voice is an obvious fit for “Blue Christmas.” But the sleepy, sincere reproduction of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” that follows is a little more unexpected – especially since I can’t help being reminded of the echo of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” in his words from “Four Winds” – hardly an uplifting celebration of Christianity’s central figure – a song Oberst would write years later: “It’s the sum of man slouching towards Bethlehem. / A heart just can’t contain all of that empty space. / It breaks. / It breaks. / It breaks.”
The reservation on display in “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” is representative of the best parts of “A Christmas Album.” Holiday music is – fairly or not – tainted for me; it conjures the sliding, grating sound of unnecessary vocal flourishes by famous singers looking to show off. But this album is subdued, almost spooky. Before hearing Taylor sing it over a solitary acoustic guitar, I would never think it possible to be haunted by “White Christmas.”
From the equally haunting “Silent Night” – in which Oberst’s whisper is just about drowned out by the steel guitar – and the staticky, distorted percussion of “Little Drummer Boy,” Bright Eyes makes these carols their own and manages, in a notably anxious era of the band, to sound completely earnest in doing so. And that’s ultimately what makes “A Christmas Album” so listenable.

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A blue Christmas