Release Date: November 25th 2019
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- What Child is This / Fragile
- O Holy Night
- Christmas Time is Here
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
- How Love Comes (Gloria)
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- We Watch, We Wait
- Let There Be Peace on Earth
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
‘…this is how it started. A girl and her piano. And this is how it was, for years. Bits and pieces of songs written on receipts in my purse, scribbled on cocktail napkins during my shift at the restaurant, a line here, a lyric there, one hundred bad ideas until one that felt special enough to wake me up in the middle of the night, bleary eyed and groggy but trusting fully in a song, when God meets a girl at her piano. This was before record deals. Before radio hits. Before Dove awards. Before tours, big and small. It started here. And after 20 years in the music industry, I am still waking up with songs ideas to scribble down and new melodies God has grafted on my heart. This time, they are songs about the Christ child. It is strange to think that in the span of my career, I have never recorded a Christmas album. It never seemed to be the right time. Not the right window. Not enough space in my life to devote to it. Until now. We are living in a world that feels like it is on fire. The headlines in the news and stranger than fiction. The simmering rage and restlessness are palpable. Everywhere. And I keep feeling drawn to the manger. To what is fragile. To what is pure and selfless. The Word made flesh. The very moment the Creator decided to sleep in dirty hay, amid the stench of barn animals, desperate to teach us the way of Love. Desperate to show us that we do not need to make ourselves first. Or great. That the way of Jesus will always be kind and loving. And just. And small enough to stoop. The way Love always does. These are the kind of songs I want to share with you this Christmas…’
Nichole Nordeman made a comeback of sorts in 2015 with her new EP The Unmaking after essentially a 10 year hiatus from music, in favour of motherhood. With her last official album, prior to The Unmaking being 2005’s Brave (between 2005 and 2015, there were single releases from time to time, from “Sunrise”, “Finally Free” and “Turn Your Eyes”, to “Real” and “Beautiful For Me”), it was a welcomed surprise to see Nichole recording and making music again. The Unmaking was actually borne out of a season of doubt and wrestling, after the public knowledge of her split with her husband of 10 years. Nichole started to wrestle, and what resulted were 6 songs full of poignancy, heartfelt moments of grace, hope and encouragement, and songs of honesty and lament, as The Unmaking became my favourite EP of that very year. 2 years or so on, Nichole again imparted to us another musical offering, this time a full-length album in Every Mile Mattered, that offered up poignant tracks in ‘Dear Me’, ‘Sound of Surviving’, ‘You’re Here’ and the title track, to name a few. Now, as I continue this ‘Christmas in July’ series, I’ve come to unveil yet another Christmas album that, unfortunately wasn’t reviewed in 2019 when it was unveiled, but will be reviewed here now- Nichole Nordeman’s first Christmas album, Fragile.
Produced by Michael Gungor, formally from the band Gungor (and who is now in the process of deconstructing his own faith), Fragile has a bit of a mix- originally written songs, holiday melodies, and the traditional Biblically-based worship-style Christmas melodies we all know and love from years ago. Standing at 11 tracks, the album starts off with ‘What Child is This / Fragile’. With the song being a mashup between the ever-beloved ‘What Child Is This’ Christmas hymn and a song called ‘Fragile’, I initially thought the song ‘Fragile’ was originally written, because well…it is written by her, right? Wrong! Shows you how much I actually know about music history- ‘Fragile’ is indeed a song that is famous, it’s actually the 1980s power-ballad from The Police frontman, Sting. As I read upon the lyrics of the original song, there’s a lot of imagery in it- a fair amount focused on the hurt, suffering and violence that is in this world, a song that can easily be sung right now in 2020 and still have 100% of the lyrics applicable to the state of the world at the moment. And thus, this track, a mish-mash of ‘What Child is This’ and ‘Fragile’ is a unique one- one is about violence, the other is about God’s love and birth and reconciliation plan for us to be welcomed back into His presence. And yet these two songs fit together seamlessly in a musical sense, as Nichole utilises a light acoustic backdrop to present a powerful message of what we see the world as being, and how we as humans are profoundly fragile (which is absolutely true in light of COVID-19), but within that fragiliy, there is undeniable peace and hope in Christ as we know His birth, subsequent ministry, death and resurrection, forms the foundation of our faith as believers in Christ. With light vocal effects, and acoustics that harken back to a bluesy vibe, Nichole marries together two songs that would otherwise have not fit together if recorded by another artist- and that is the beauty and the talent of what Nichole really is!
‘O Holy Night’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are the Christmas carol representatives, and while a lot of these songs are much more reflective and mellow compared to the other joyous and upbeat tracks (that could’ve been considered for this album)- ‘Joy to the World’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘We Three Kings’, to name a few; Nichole nevertheless delivers these tracks with unique twists- ‘O Holy Night’ has a synth-keyboard atmosphere, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is slowed down a little and is presented with a heavier bass aspect, violins and light keyboards are prominent on ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, while ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ has a swing/blues beat as acoustics again are Nichole’s friend in this swaying songs complete with layering vocals and a soothing musical atmosphere. Each one of these Christmas hymns has been given a unique way of being represented here on Fragile– kudos to Nichole, and Michael Gungor, for these arrangements, and some of the most uniquely choreographed Christmas carol out of all of the songs here on Fragile!
Everyone knows ‘Have Yourself a Merry, Little Christmas’, so to see this song appear on Fragile as the ending track is a sense of a nice familiarity to the end of the album- even if I have heard this song again and again in countless other Christmas albums gone past. With just the keyboard and Nichole’s emotive and soulful voice, Nichole’s enthusiasm in each note on the track, is enough for me to be engaged in the whole thing- even though I’ve heard this song before, many times, sung in many different ways. ‘Christmas Time is Here’, a song not covered enough during various Christmas albums released throughout the years, is also here on Fragile, and as I recently discovered the context of this particular song, being originally written and recorded especially for a TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, I am reminded of all the Snoopy-the-dog cartoons I have seen when I was a kid. And so now this particular song ‘Christmastime is Here’ takes on a slightly different meaning, as I get reacquainted with my childhood of watching Charlie Brown cartoons at various times throughout my formative years. ‘Christmastime is Here’ is a memorable song, not a song that I’ve immensely enjoyed like other holiday tracks ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ (I dunno why I like these two songs- maybe it’s because I want to experience a white Christmas sometime in my life!); but nevertheless, a song that I’ve grown to be fond of over the years. Kudos to Nichole for placing her own spin on a very, very familiar classic while also re-introducing to us a track that has floated around for years, but not covered enough during this Christmas period. Obscure Christmas hymn ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ is also featured here on Fragile– originally recorded by Amy Grant’s husband Vince Gill, and unveiled by Nichole as an alternatively-styled song full of reverb and vocal effects, something that can hopefully bring in the younger generation and introduce them to a Christmas hymn long forgotten, but maybe now seen in a new light.
‘Maybe’, ‘How Love Comes (Gloria)’, and ‘We Watch, We Wait’ are the three originally written tracks present on Fragile, and as I’ve heard these songs over the last little while, I’ve come to realise that these set of songs are arguably some of the most emotive songs I’ve heard pertaining to this season of Christmas, ever since songs like ‘Born in Bethlehem’, ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Christmas Like a Child’ and ‘Jesus Light of the World’, from Third Day way back in 2006. ‘Maybe’ brings forth the theme of a possibility of reunion between God and man, as we see in the contrast of God’s peace and our own foolishness, while Nichole herself declares in this song, that maybe Christmas is an opportunity for us all show a little kindness and peace to each other- ‘…if the world wants peace for Christmas, could it not begin with us? Maybe love is bigger, maybe love is stronger, maybe just for Christmas, but maybe longer…’ ‘Maybe’ is a moment of realisation, that such a time as this, during Christmastime where Christians, humanists and athiests alike, celebrate the holiday in their own way; we are called, as followers of Jesus, to show Christ to the people that need it.
‘How Love Comes (Gloria)’ is another originally written track for Fragile, and upon hearing it, it doesn’t really feel like a Christmas song at all. I mean yes, it does reference Jesus’s birth, but it is done in a way so as the focus of the song is on what Jesus did here on Earth during His time in ministry, and how He conversed and had fellowship with people that the religious elite dared not mingle with. As Nichole herself declares, we are met with the notion that ‘…only love would choose flesh and bone, choose the unknown, to be one of us, only love would, lose without gain, prove without blame, to be one of us, to limp, to cry, to walk beside us in the struggle, to break, to mend, to stoop, to bend when we are huddled…’; as we understand that only a love so great for us would do such things as Jesus did. ‘How Love Comes’ may not have the Christmas ‘feel’ to it, but nevertheless is a worthy song for us to listen to and ponder at least once as we reflect upon God’s characteristics and mannerisms for humanity, both at their best and worst. ‘We Watch, We Wait’ was written and sung by Nichole from the perspective of the people around the time of Jesus’ birth, as they themselves watched and waited for the expectant Messiah to come- only for it to be Jesus born in a manger. Sometimes we as people so far removed from 0BC, may overlook the fact that people around the time where maybe thinking of a different Messiah than what Jesus really was- someone who could physically release them from the rule of the King, rather than what Jesus really came to do, which was free people spiritually.
Nichole is a lyrical genius, and it is a great to hear what she had to offer in 2019 with Fragile. Without fail, this new album is a masterpiece. Period. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to embrace the reality that every circumstance, and I really mean ‘every’, will be used by the Lord, because honestly, when we’re in the thick of it, we can get bogged down and sometimes not believe this truth- we may not see that God can use whatever mess we’re in and turn it around for His glory. But He can. And He does. And He will. Nichole has shown us a lot through Fragile of our desperate need for a Saviour and the criteria that God Himself meets every time in the form of Jesus Christ. With Nichole giving to us her first Christmas album ever in her career, this is certainly and definitely worth the wait, from an artist that’s certain to leave a wonderful and much-respected mark on not only the CCM industry but on the music industry as a whole whenever she does move onto another area if God calls her to do so. Fragile is a great journey- from originally written Christmas songs, to traditional worshipful hymns, and holiday melodies, and from songs like ‘Maybe’ and ‘How Love Comes’, to ‘O Holy Night’, ‘Christmas Time is Here’ and ‘What Child is This’; this album ought to be commended by Nichole as being one of the most emotive and heartfelt I’ve heard since Michael W. Smith’s Christmas album in 2014. Well done Nichole for this musical offering, here’s hoping that more lives are impacted for the better from this album and its songs!
‘…artists are supposed to tell the truth. Full stop. Good art does that and always has, historically. Christian artists are often confused with roles we are not qualified to take on, and shoes we shouldn’t step into. We are not pastors or counselors. We are not theologians. We are not teachers. I even get a little nervous about the term “role models” because when our humanity betrays us and the curtain is pulled back, young people especially don’t know what to do with onstage vs. offstage persona and failure. When your favorite Christian accountant goes to rehab, you respond with grace and support. When your favorite Christian artist does, people unravel. I say that confessionally. There were years that I maintained persona at all costs. It’s so dangerous. The responsibility I feel as a Christian artist is the very same responsibility I feel as a Christian, period. I am trying not to differentiate these days. I want my life’s work and my relationships and my worship and my service to point to Jesus, who saves us with his love, time and time again. I want to write songs that tell the truth about that, and the road to that, and sometimes even the road away from that. I want to sing loudly about the inclusivity of the table where Jesus invites us all to sit and feast. I hope my actual life sings this song, and not just my music. It would be deeply sad to me if someone pointed out that there was a marked difference…’
3 songs to listen to: Maybe, How Love Comes, Let There Be Peace on Earth
RIYL: Jason Gray, Andrew Peterson, Brooke Fraser, Sara Groves