Release Date: November 12th 2021
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Magic Ooooooh (feat. The McCrary Sisters)
- A Real Tree This Year
- Let’s Get Away (feat. The McCrary Sisters)
- Home to Me
- Blame It On The Mistletoe
- Slow Falling Snow
- What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?
- Silent Night
- Gone For Christmas (feat. The McCrary Sisters)
- Wish For You
- Always Christmas Around Here (feat. Lawrence Rothman)
Here’s a question that I reckon we all need to ponder over, if not right now on Christmas Eve, then maybe tomorrow on Christmas Day or the day after on Boxing Day. And it is this. What is the right balance in terms of lyrical content on Christmas releases around about now? Considering that the world has been ravaged by COVID-19 over the past couple of years and counting (there will undoubtedly be countless variants of the virus over the however many years), it’s natural to assume that any holiday and worshipful Christmas albums and music by familiar and up and coming artists will comfort us and bring us healing. That is a fact. God will use inspirational and Christian themed Christmas albums (albums this year from Matthew West, Zach Williams and Chris Tomlin to name a few) in the same ways as ‘mainstream music’ (albums this year from Pentatonix, Pistol Annies, Norah Jones and Peter Hollens to name a few); in order to bring us comfort, healing and to draw people closer to himself. That, my friends, is a fact. And during the pandemic, when it seems like nothing is going right, I guess it does bring me comfort to know that there are all kinds of artists (regardless of morals, beliefs, faiths, values, lack of faith, socioeconomic status, gender, race and sexual orientation); who are positive, optimistic in the face of adversity and who actively decide to bring hope, joy and love in a darkened world, especially during Jesus’ birth, even if they do not explicitly sing about Jesus’ birth. in a world where we can’t see a way out, it’s a great sign to know that artists far and wide are using their gifts for the greater good and are bringing us all together. That is one thing I know this Christmas.
And this brings me to my question above: is there a right balance in terms of lyrical content this Christmas? Sure, Christmas is all about Jesus and family and spending time with loved ones… so should that mean music that is bright, joyous, cheerful, and downright happy? And if there is a ‘right balance’, then what is it? Should Christmas music be all fluffy, sunshine and rainbows all the time? You’d think so, right? Of all the Christmas albums we’ve reviewed thus far this year, Norah Jones’ I Dream Of Christmas is the most mellow- and even that is still powerful, impacting and somewhat joyful, or at least reverent and decidedly reflective. So should Christmas music instead be dark, moody, serious and contemplative? Shall we have artists who aren’t afraid to dive deep into the nitty-gritty, hard lyrical content, and aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions; considering that sometimes Christmas brings up sad memories for people who don’t have families, or don’t have strong relationships with their families? Are we singing positive Christmas songs and thus projecting a blanket reality over the entirety of the population of which a proportion do not feel safe, happy, secure, wanted or loved this Christmas? Or should artists exclusively sing about Jesus’ birth and the good things? I guess if you’ve read this site regularly and noticed the types of reviews we post, then I’d say you’ll find out that we like all types of music, but mainly we write about the optimism and security we find in Jesus. But we also write about music that asks questions and music that speaks about sitting back and chilling. And everything else in between. And thus, this Christmas, let us divulge into a pretty out-there and thematically difficult album. Amanda Shires’ For Christmas isn’t happy by any means, but it is an album that I believe is necessary to hear this holiday season. And as Amanda probes and probes and probes, asking question after question this Christmas; it does bring me comfort to know that artists like Amanda (Switchfoot and Needtobreathe come to mind) ask questions about humanity and the human condition, letting us know that we as humans aren’t alone.
I decided to make a Christmas record because I felt like all the Christmas records that we re-listen to every year occupy one space for the most part. Then, I was just thinking about the past year—along with other Christmases and family in general—and I thought, ‘There are more sides to this holiday season.’
We spent last Christmas in lockdown, although this is not a COVID record by any means. I was thinking about the things that I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about that. Also, our phones went out in Nashville because someone bombed the AT&T tower, so I was thinking about how I didn’t get to spend Christmas with my dad or even call him. Then, with the loss of John Prine, I was thinking about how Christmas is going to be so different going forward. This all started hitting me all at once so like I do when I start to feel a certain way and want to clear it up in my own head, I consulted the ukulele. Then, I wrote all the songs in just a couple of months.
It was like 100 degrees outside, but we made it feel like Christmas on the inside. The place was all decked out. And if you’re wondering about the artwork on the record, just think about a chimney and how cool it would be if I was your Santa Claus.
Amanda Shires isn’t a household name. she isn’t popular by any means in the mainstream media; although she is popular in the Americana, folk and country scene with her husband Jason Isbell. But after her band The Highwomen received critical acclaim for their debut album, and after I heard of Amanda’s Christmas album For Christmas; well, it was time for me personally to check out her music. And let me tell you all, to me For Christmas is not a disappointment. You know how sometimes there are Christmas albums where there is more than one skippable song (I’m looking at you Chris Tomlin!)? It’s safe to say that For Christmas is quality all around and is full of moments that just grab your emotions, even if they’re about the unpleasant or ugly parts of the holiday season. Yep, there’s nothing skippable here. Album opener “Magic Ooooooh” features the McCrary Sisters, and is a romantic love song of sorts, with Amanda singing to her partner that she loves him and that ‘…the world’s so bright and new, now that I’ve found you, I wanna hold onto this starry feeling, 40 hundred years, or as long as I’m still here, long as I’m with you…’. The heartfelt and heart-warming song isn’t a Christmas song per se, but Amanda however sings about the feeling between her and her partner to be comparable to the feelings of Christmas… so I guess that counts, am I right? This heartwarming ballad, though having nothing to do with Christmas lyrically, still gives off a Christmas vibe atmospherically, and thus, to me is a standout opener- but who here agrees with me?
The rest of For Christmas juggles thematically between the sweet sounds of the holiday and the uncomfortable truths we may feel. But the whole album still is potent and magical no matter which way you slice it. “A Real Tree This Year” is a fun, cheerful and nonsensical original folk tune about Amanda dressing up her husband to look like a real tree this year (and lyrically is so, so out there that it doesn’t sound Christmas-y and instead sounds like a comedy song from SNL, in the best way possible!); while the emotional, honest and vulnerable piano ballad “Let’s Get Away” speaks about those who don’t have fond memories of the holidays- as Amanda sings about ‘getting away’ for the holidays and from Christmas, in the sense that we shouldn’t be all so stressed about family around the holidays, and we can retreat in our own homes or away from home if we want to. This melody isn’t for everyone, and kudos to Amanda for actually recording this melody and taking a leap of faith- “Let’s Get Away” is a melody that speaks about the anxiousness and other confusing feelings surrounding the holidays. Amanda validates every weird feeling in this song, and reminds us that Christmas doesn’t have to be all sunshine and rainbows if we don’t feel in the mood. “Home To Me”, also another original (this album is chock full of originals so… deal with it guys! Lol!), is a harrowing, mysterious plea to Amanda’s husband to come home to her while it’s snowing and while the elements are all around her; while the semi-upbeat piano track “Blame It On The Mistletoe” speaks about the beginnings of a new love and something new that resulted from ‘the mistletoe’ around Christmas time.
“Slow Falling Snow”, a heartbreaking piano ballad about Amanda wishing that her grandfather (and other family friends who have passed away), are still around for Christmas; is a melody that will bring tears to anyone’s eyes… and boy did it make me emotional! A song that again isn’t about Christmas per se but about feelings associated with winter and the holidays, Amanda reminds us how profound and compelling she is as a songwriter. The iconic and legendary Ella Fitzgerald jazz tune “What Are You Doing New Years Eve” is next, and Amanda covers this soft ballad beautifully and to perfection; while “Silent Night” is sung in a minor key and rewritten as an original track, reflecting the chaotic headspace where Amanda is at, that When you’re in the midst of all this celebration and reflecting on the year, you might find yourself thinking that nothing’s been bright. You’re not ready to go to parties and put your smile on along with some nice clothes because it doesn’t fit your mood. You think, “I’m still not done processing everything I’ve had to process.” And, even though it is a bit dark, I think there’s healing when you face the darkness. “Gone For Christmas”, another track with The McCrary Sisters, is a melody depicting a dark tone musically, and speaks about a petty revenge plot towards someone who has done Amanda wrong (I want you gone for Christmas); however “Wish For You” speaks about the happiness surrounding Christmas, with Amanda earnestly singing out a prayer-of-sorts, a wish for her loved ones, relaying that her only wish she has for herself is for all of her wishes to everyone else to come true, that ‘…I hope that you get everything you want, or at least, what you need, and I hope that it goes exactly how you want it to, and it happens easily, the only wish I have for me is that all of mine for you come true…’. For Christmas then ends with the introspective and reflective “It’s Always Christmas”, whereby Amanda speaks about her family dynamics around Christmas and delves into the fact that sometimes she feels like ‘it’s always Christmas’ at her house- that the feeling of pressure and apprehension is always there- unless she actively changes her mindset and perspective.
There’s so much emotion and thinking and planning that comes with Christmas. It leads to all these different moods and feelings. I didn’t ever picture myself writing a Christmas record, but I also see myself writing another one because I didn’t get all those feelings in there.
Thinking back on this record, I wanted to show all the different corners, both musically and in terms of life. You’ve got a hopeful corner and you’ve got a dark corner, and all the range of emotions in between. The thing I always keep in mind is that if life didn’t go so dark, then the bright spots wouldn’t be so bright.
Christmas can be fun and jokes sometimes, but we’re also sitting around with family members we don’t see that much for longer than we probably want to. At first, you might be looking forward to seeing them for like three or four days, and then you’re wishing, “Oh, just one.” And you’re making this dish that nobody cooks all year long. Nobody’s practiced making a turkey and you’re going to eat that? It’s crazy.
Another thing about this album is that I didn’t feel any pressure to do it. I was writing something seasonal without any expectation of it turning into a whole touring situation. Sometimes pressure will freeze you up—it constricts things and there’s fear that goes along with that pressure.
Sometimes you need Christmas albums to cheer you up and to make you dance for joy- albums like Evergreen by Pentatonix or A Very Darren Crissmas by Darren Criss or A Family Christmas by We The Kingdom are examples of this. But this album isn’t one of them. Much like Norah Jones’ I Dream Of Christmas, Amanda Shires’ holiday album (with technically 10 originals!) is reflective, introspective and full of trepidation and uncertainty. But it creates discussion, so whether this album is for you in the moment, is debatable. The real question is, should you listen to For Christmas today on Christmas Eve or tomorrow or next year during Christmastime or maybe the year after? I’d say yes. There’s lyrical gold to mine here, and no doubt one song would resonate. I for one love the lyrical richness here, but it’s a lot to swallow- specifically taking about feelings of isolation and hopelessness around the holidays (in songs masked with facetiousness). And so For Christmas is good in small doses. It reminds us that life is fragile and people have complicated emotions around the holidays, and yet we all need people for companionship. Yet also provides a quietly confident hope for the future. This album isn’t for everyone right now. But it’s needed for everyone sometime in their lives. Well done Amanda for creating an musical masterpiece, and a lyrical one too. For the rest of us though, let’s listen to this at our own pace. There’s a time for jamming out to fun Christmas holiday classics. And a time for reflective songs. This album is for the latter time.
3 songs to listen to: Home To Me, Slow Falling Snow, Wish For You
RIYL: Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Andrew Peterson, Nichole Nordeman, John Mayer