Story House Collective / Provident Label Group
Release Date: October 29th 2021
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- We Need Christmas
- Make Way
- Away in a Manger (Love Came Near)
- The Hope of Christmas
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas
- Christmas Through the Years
- Winter Wonderland
- Gobble Gobble
- Come on Christmas (Live From the Story House)
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Live From the Story House)
- O Holy Night (Live From the Story House)
Matthew West, dare I say it, is perhaps the closest there is to a modern-day version of Steven Curtis Chapman. That’s my opinion- others may disagree, and that’s fine. But for me, ever since Matthew undertook one of the most selfless acts in CCM- writing music not based on your own experience but based upon others- fans to be exact; I’ve had much more admiration and respect for what he’s doing, something that I reckon the CCM community of music should decide to invest in moving forward- writing songs, not just on the experiences of the writer (that can happen too), but rather, place their own feelings and what they could think, in someone else’s head for a moment, and write from their point of view. For if that were to happen, there’d be much more humility, and less rash judgements- and where I see the most judgements from, is yes, the CCM community. So for Matthew to write not for himself but for others is refreshing to see. He’s built most of his career- 2010 onward, on this structure, and as he entered his new season on Provident Label Group, Matthew unveiled to the world his latest album of songs in a bundle called Brand New, released digitally in February 2020. As Matthew continued to deliver poignant songs and melodies- presenting them in a way that humanises the stories sung through song, we see a plethora of them impacting millions of people around the world with standout songs from Brand New being tracks like ‘The God Who Stays’, ‘What If’, ‘Grace Upon Grace’, ‘Walking Miracles’, ‘Truth Be Told’ and ‘The Man Who Needed Grace’, to name a few. Now a veteran and mainstay in CCM, Matthew’s at it again. After his surprise single ‘Take Heart’ that was unveiled early 2020 under the strict guidelines of social distancing and quarantining protocols because of the horrific COVID-19 pandemic; his EP Live Before the World Shut Down (EP) (an album recorded in an acoustic manner throughout a variety of shows prior to live shows being shut down in America (and around the world) from March 2020 onward because of COVID-19), and his newly re-recorded singles ‘What If’ and ‘Truth Be Told’, featuring up-and-coming country stars Lathan Warlick and Carly Pearce respectively; Matthew’s back again with a brand new album- We Need Christmas, his 3rd Christmas album after the successful The Heart of Christmas (2011) and Unto Us: A Christmas Collection (2016).
Creating Christmas music is a new and wonderful thing, right? Curating an album so that listeners can get into the Christmas and holiday spirit once December rolls around. Christmas albums should be full of wonder, joy, excitement, passion and cheer, and each Christmas album ought to bring something new to the table, right? Well…that should be, but that doesn’t mean that some albums just drag, and some albums just stand out and above the rest. Christmas albums are a rare breed- you have your holiday songs like ‘This Christmas’, ‘Let It Snow’, ‘Happy Holidays’, ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’, the songs that are synonymous with December, and are fit for everyone to sing, even if you don’t ascribe to Christianity. Then you have your Biblically grounded Christmas songs, like ‘The First Noel’, ‘We Three Kings’, ‘O Holy Night’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and ‘Joy to the World’, songs that specifically and explicitly state the reason for the season. And then there’s originally written songs by the artist- especially for their Christmas album at hand. Songs like ‘December Song’ (Peter Hollens), ‘Merry Christmas’ (Third Day), ‘The First Christmas’ (Riley Clemmons), ‘Miraculum’ (Lincoln Brewster), ‘Labour of Love’ (Andrew Peterson), ‘Glorious’ (for KING & COUNTRY), ‘Glory (Let There Be Peace)’ (Matt Maher) and ‘Somewhere In Your Silent Night’ (Casting Crowns) are just some of the originally written Christmas songs of late, that have made me love Christmas even more, and even more appreciative of the songs that artists specifically write for the season. And so; when it comes to Christmas albums in general, it can be one of a few things. There can be so much emphasis on holiday songs (and that’s fine) that it seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry are covering these tracks, year after year after year; there can be emphasis on Biblical Christmas songs so much to the point where you don’t want to hear another cover of ‘Silent Night’ or ‘Away in a Manger’), or there can be a balance between the two, and a few original Christmas songs thrown in for good measure. Matthew’s album is a great mix of holiday, Christmas and original material, and this new offering is one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these last few weeks, and while I may have wanted the album a tad longer (14 or 15 songs, instead of 11), what we still have presented from Matthew, is arguably one of 2021’s best, maybe even rivalling Pentatonix’s Evergreen as my favourite Christmas album of 2021 thus far.
Starting off the album with the original song ‘We Need Christmas’, Matthew’s delivery of this piano-driven track is one that reminds us of how much Christmas we need, especially after the couple of years that we have had not only as a nation of Australia, but as the whole world. A song that was originally recorded by country duo Maddie & Tae for their Christmas EP last year, Matthew’s version of the song evokes more of a reflective anthem feel, as the instrumentation reminds us all, of why Matthew is the king of ballads within CCM (in my opinion!). The song speaks of all the reasons why we need Christmas, and that all the things that we associate with the season (church, presents, celebrating Christ’s birth, the joy, peace and hope that people receive during this giving season, if even you aren’t affiliated with Christianity) ought to be reasons why we fight harder and smarter for the time of the year that was unfortunately scaled back last year because of COVID-19. Christmas is a time for new beginnings, of rebirth, of hope coming into the darkest of places…and that’s something we all should yearn and long for, right? Matthew switches up a reflective mood, to a more upbeat one with ‘Make Way’, complete with trumpets and big-band music sounds, as this song allows us to join alongside Matthew in a celebratory mood. Declaring us all to make way for God to come and show up every Christmas and do what He normally does in the hearts of people around the world, is something we all ought to declare, because Christmastime ought to be such where we expect things of the Lord, to happen in our lives, especially during a month where the awe and wonder of the season should heal us from all the things that have happened to us since the start of COVID-19. And what better way to see joy and hope happen than through a song like ‘Make Way’?
‘The Hope of Christmas’ and ‘Christmas Through The Years’ are the two other original songs by Matthew delivered here on this album- and both these songs continue to remind us of how heartfelt and emotive, Matthew’s original Christmas music really is. With emotive and heartfelt Christmas songs under his belt like ‘The Heart of Christmas’, ‘Give This Christmas Away’, ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’, ‘One Last Christmas’, ‘Unto Us’, ‘Join the Angels’ and ‘A Christmas to Believe In’; these next two original songs by Matthew are no different. ‘The Hope Of Christmas’ was released first in October 2020, and is once again a reflective ballad, a musical technique that Matthew has seemed to always be a master of. The song itself speaks about how these days ‘…peace on earth is hard to find, and I need you to remind me one more time [that] You’re still the hope of Christmas, You’re still the light when the world looks dark, You’re still the hope of Christmas and You’re still the hope of my heart…’, and a great way to encourage us all of how no matter how dark a year can get (and these last two years have certainly been dark in the world!), God is still the hope of Christmas, that the story of God incarnate coming to us as a baby in a manger as a way for us to be reconciled back to Himself, should evoke hope beyond anything else we have heard or seen. The Christmas story (and thus also, the Easter story), are indeed the greatest stories we’ve heard; and that is further shown through ‘Christmas Through the Years’, a story delivered through song about how Christmas looks different as the years travel on, that what we may have hoped for to be the same for years, will inevitably change. Not necessarily for the better or worse, but it’ll be different. And it is in this song that I’ve realised that as much as things do change, we know the Christ doesn’t, and the reason for why we celebrate what we do, shouldn’t change regardless of the seasons and circumstances. COVID-19 is definitely a great equaliser for each of us, and that the change and fragility of life that we have gained a knowledge of over the last two years, can hopefully propel us all to embrace the Christmases that are present in front of us now, no matter how different they can look to what we have hoped them to be.
Throughout the rest of the album, we see Matthew present songs that are both familiar and different, as his take on holiday songs and songs created by himself before, continue to remind us of why his Christmas albums through the years are definite standouts amongst Christmas album releases across both CCM and mainstream. ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘White Christmas’ are holiday favourites in general, and have been covered by tons of artists over the years, and while people can think that these songs are covered to death, I tend to like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ anyway. They don’t get covered enough, and Matthew’s renditions of both these songs are done in such a way to bring forth a jazz element, something that Matthew hasn’t done in his music, ever. It’s nice to see Matthew a little out of his comfort zone; and deliver these jazz-like Christmas songs that could’ve fit at home on a Josh Groban or a Michael Buble Christmas album. Matthew also presents to us ‘Away in A Manger (Love Came Near)’, an almost traditional Christmas song, except for the originally written chorus that Matthew added to the track, presenting a more modern ‘feel’ to the song that actually brings life into a track that has been covered by plenty of artists before. Not that Christmas songs need ‘updating’, but this song in particular was starting to become a run-of-the-mill ‘boring’ Christmas track, and Matthew’s ‘refreshing’ of this song, is what reminds us that every once in a while, Christmas songs do need some kind of ‘modernisation’, akin to how songs like ‘The Wonderful Cross’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ are updated by Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin respectively.
‘Gobble, Gobble’ lands in at #8 on the tracklist for this album, and while the song itself is a interesting take on creating a song about Thanksgiving instead of all the Christmas songs created each and every year, it just seems so out of place on a Christmas album…maybe it’s because we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here in Australia, and therefore, I can’t really relate to the song in a holistic sense? ‘Come on Christmas’, originally on Matthew’s 2011 Christmas album, is again presented here in an acoustical ‘Live From the Story House’ session as Matthew delivers a stripped down version of an already-great song. The song itself express a sense of excitement, wonder and eagerness by the persona for the upcoming Christmas season, and while these last couple of years don’t really give us much to be eager and excited about, ‘Come on Christmas’ is still a cheery, joyful song about the wonders of a season that we really need in our lives right now. The album then rounds out with ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘O Holy Night’, both these songs taken from a ‘Live From the Story House’ acoustical session. Matthew presents these tracks with such passion, energy and heart, and while I know these two songs are iconic Christmas songs in their own right, both these tracks unfortunately aren’t as capturing as the songs on the front end of the album. Even though I absolutely love ‘O Holy Night’ (it’s my favourite Christmas song ever), it has been recorded by a lot of artists over the years…so much so that with each new version that comes out, I find is becoming less and less distinctive compared to other ‘O Holy Night’ covers- and that unfortunately is true of Matthew’s version (though not intentional). I love the song, but with keyboards and strings all the way through, this song hardly builds up, and I myself prefer the covers of ‘O Holy Night’ by Lincoln Brewster and Kerrie Roberts…maybe another Christmas cover instead, something not as covered as much by other artists, like ‘We Three Kings’ or ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’?
Same can be unfortunately said about ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’- it has been played to death in shopping centres around the world since…well, ever! And while I can appreciate people’s love of this sentimental and holiday-ish track, I personally am not really a fan of the song- primarily because I’ve heard it too much: from artists like BarlowGirl, Bebo Norman, Francesca Battistelli, Jaci Velasquez, Joy Williams, Phil Wickham, Lauren Daigle, Kelly Clarkson and Pentatonix, to Rhett Walker, Sarah Reeves, MercyMe, Josh Groban, Jackie Evancho and Christy Nockels; to name a few. ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is perhaps the most covered holiday song of the season, and while I’ve loved renditions by artists like BarlowGirl and Phil Wickham, the song itself doesn’t feel as inspired and impactful as it is. It’s definitely overrated, and sad to say, Matthew’s version of the song doesn’t bring anything new to a song that has been covered way too many times as it should.
Matthew’s discography is a wide one, and with many songs that have climbed up the radio charts over the years, his presence in CCM shouldn’t be ignored or even bypassed in favour of other ‘more famous’ CCM artists, like TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Francesca Battistelli, Newsboys, and the like. Yes, Matthew doesn’t have that much traction or even a following as opposed that all these other aforementioned artists, and that’s ok. His discography speaks for itself. And his new 2021 Christmas album, alongside his 2011 and 2016 Christmas albums too, are steady and firm reminders of a constant worker Matthew is, in an industry that often overlooks the artist that grinds tirelessly, like Matthew, in favour of someone flamboyant and impactful from the get-go, but after an impressive debut, may not be in the spotlight anymore, for whatever reason- artists like Everfound and About a Mile come to mind, who had impressive debuts, but nothing much else. Nevertheless, Matthew’s influence in an industry that is seemingly tired is indeed there; and his songs on We Need Christmas especially, are some of the most hard-hitting Christmas songs I’ve heard in a while. Songs like ‘We Need Christmas’, ‘Christmas Through the Years’ and ‘The Hope of Christmas’ standout, alongside his jazz-like covers of ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’. An album for any fan of Matthew’s previous Christmas material, this is a must-have for anyone who appreciates Christmas music, holiday music, originally written Christmas music, and everything else in between. Well done Matthew for this album, definitely one of my favourite Christmas albums, alongside Pentatonix’s Evergreen, in 2021 thus far!
3 songs to listen to: We Need Christmas, The Hope of Christmas, Christmas Through the Years
RIYL: Rascal Flatts, Tauren Wells, Big Daddy Weave, Royal Tailor, Tenth Avenue North