Artist: Carolyn Arends
Label: 2B Records (Oct. 2014)
O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still and dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .
With those words, Carolyn Arends takes on the first of several Christmas song classics whose iconic imagery needs to be challenged in "It Was a Holy Night," the opening song on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories. The quiet, empty streets so long imagined give way in the mind's eye to a real place teeming with soldiers and politicians; a place far from reverent and peaceful, but rather overcrowded, cruel, and hungry. She sets the stage vividly so that she can remind us that "And then the Baby came . . . and when the Baby came . . ." Well, there probably was some crying going on away in that manger, and those herald angels we harken unto may well have gasped and trembled to see God make His home as a babe in "such poor and broken place." They truly must have wondered how we could deserve a gift like Him. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."
Silent night? Probably not. Holy night? Most definitely!
That's just Carolyn being Carolyn. When you spend your creative life wrestling with the Holy Spirit, and your theological joints have been knocked out of place more times than you can count, you're not afraid to take on even the most sacrosanct of holiday hymns. I get what the writers of these classic songs were trying to do: create an atmosphere of holiness by bathing this crazy, radical juncture of history -- the Incarnation -- in serene, majestic splendor. I cannot help but think, though, that Carolyn's vision is much closer to the truth. God came then and comes now in the midst of the mess and the chaos and the dirt and the rebellion, and He makes it holy despite all of that, despite all of us. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."
Christmas: The Story of Stories is, in some ways, not a very Christmasy album. That is, it eschews all the gimmicks that you usually find on even the most artistic of Christmas albums released by the most talented songwriters and sincere musicians. "Well, it sounds like a Carolyn Arends album," one of my friends told me, a quizzical look upon her face. Um, yeah. She wrote nine of the thirteen songs. The sound is quintessentially Carolyn, too: folk-pop with a laid-back vibe; heavy on the myriad strings, light on back beat; lyrically-driven, deep-rooted, authentic; with unexpected touches of funk and fun. The most Christmasy arrangements are probably on "Everything Changes at Christmas," which manages somehow to evoke church bells ringing in the middle of snowfall, and two of the classics, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" which are very traditional. So, this may not be the album you put on for background music at your office Christmas party. As such, it is not an album merely to be listened to; it is an album that needs to be heard.
And what will those who have ears to hear find? Nothing less than a bold -- audacious really -- attempt to get at the core of exactly what the mystery means of a God who puts on humanity in its most vulnerable state and comes to dwell with us and eventually die for us, all because He cannot stand to let us go. Carolyn respects her listeners by assuming that we are as interested in grappling with this glorious riddle as she is; that assumption has led to a really fine collection of songs that transcends seasonal affiliation. It is the Story of stories.
"Vacancy" is one of my favorites. It is that rarest of things: a new Advent song. When I spoke with Carolyn about it this past summer, she commented on the paradox that she was immensely happy playing a song with the melancholy themes of longing and emptiness. She attributed that to the bouncy presence of the ukulele -- that interminably Pollyanna-ish instrument. Indeed. I think, too, that while the song might have been written in a "blue space," the lyrics are ultimately so hope-filled (as every Advent song should be), that it is perhaps a happier lyric than she had intended. Sometimes when you're quite hungry, but you know that soon you are going to eat something very good, you really appreciate the hunger, even if it hurts a little. Just the knowing that the fulfillment is on its way makes the hunger at once both more intense and less awful. That's Advent for you.
"Everything Changes at Christmas" was released in a different arrangement as a single a few years ago. I was a bit disappointed when I heard the new version on the album, because I had so long loved the old. This new version has grown on me, though, as I think it matches the flavor of the album as a whole better in its latest rendition. I really like the way that it builds at the end with the sound of bells ringing out "Ode to Joy" and "Joy to the World" -- was that the glockenspiel??? -- and now my only wish is that they had run with that theme for a wee bit longer; it is over far too soon.
"Christmas Magic" could have used a line about After Eight dinner mints, but I'm not going to go around telling Carolyn how to write her nostalgic Christmas song. I joke. It is lovely, especially the line about not being ashamed to hang dollar-store tinsel, because "there is great worth in reflecting the light."
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is my favorite traditional Christmas song. What a treat and a surprise to find it on this album! This arrangement has a funky klezmer sort of sound that is a lot of fun. Comforting and joyful, indeed.
The song that most surprised me was "The Sound." I was not quite ready for the rush of emotion that overcame me when I heard, "Hush now, listen, that's the sound of the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming to your town." Goose bumps and tears. I thought that the seamless transition into "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was well-done and apropos. That could have been pulled off as an instrumental interlude, but it is always nice to hear Carolyn sing, too.
My daughter loves "You Gotta Get Up," a Rich Mullins song which is basically a kid's take on Christmas morning -- all mixed up with reindeer and presents and peace on earth and "that Baby born in Bethlehem" -- with the recurring plea to Mom and Dad to "get up!" already. It has a nice, bright, cheerful sound and is altogether charming. What I find funny is that not once in the eleven Christmases we've now had with Sadie has she ever awoken before us on December 25. Ha!
I get a particular kick out of "Long Way to Go," because I like the lyrical device of Carolyn's using mild expressions of amazement that I usually associate with the American South to pack a punch into the chorus: Goodness gracious, have mercy! Goodness gracious, man alive! Goodness gracious, glory be! I feel in the need of a mint julep after hearing that song, bless her heart.
"Story of Stories" is the anchor here, the title song. Of course, I love the reference to Philip Yancey's summation of human history from The Jesus I Never Knew: "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back." He could have just started over/Left us alone in the dark/But our God is not like that/He wants His family back/He's had a plan from the start . . . "What Kind of King?" complements "Story of Stories" in such a way that it makes sense that it follows right afterward. OK, so we know that our God wants His family back, and so He sends us -- well, what kind of king exactly? Only Himself incarnate to dwell among us in the lowliest state. What kind of plan ever goes this far?/What kind of mercy puts itself at ours?/What kind of Maker walks the earth He made/From the cradle to the cross and leaves an empty grave?/What kind of love? . . .
"Dawn on Us" was another surprise; it is a gloriously happy, radiant song featuring my favorite unsung hero of the Christmas story: Joseph. Let it dawn on us/Like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us:/This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day. And in the light of every day. This is then followed by "O Come All Ye Faithful" which is simply done, beautifully rendered, and ends with Carolyn, a cappella, singing "Christ the Lord" into the stillness.
OK, that was another of my way-too-long reviews. Please forgive me. It's been five long years since I have had the immense pleasure of listening to and then writing about a new Carolyn Arends album. That's what blogs are for; I will self-edit and put a more succinct version on Amazon. I almost wish I did not love it so much -- that I could find some flaw at which to pick in a picayune way simply to bolster my reviewer creds -- but, nope; to my ears, there is not a false note.
Ah, here is one slightly disappointing thing: On the past few albums that Carolyn has done as an independent artist, she has included something funny in the midst of the typical legal warnings on CDs about unauthorized reproduction. She had five years to plan something amusing to put on the disc for this release, and I was giddy to think about what sort of secret, sly thing she would work into the fine print; and, she did not put anything. Nothing. I am sorely crestfallen.
If that's the worst I can say, though, then verily I am blessed. You will be, too, if you make Christmas: The Story of Stories a part of your music library not only for this and every Christmas, but for random year-round listening when you just need a reminder about how glorious and seismic and extravagant this holy tide of Christmas truly is.