For many of us, Christmas will be very different this year. Whether it’s because we can’t be in the presence of our families on the 25th, or because we can’t go out with work colleagues for a boozy Christmas night out, the vast majority of those who celebrate Christmas will have a very different festive season this year. And it’s something we’ve all been anticipating too: as countries across the world went into lockdown earlier in the year, some of us anticipated ‘normality’ would have returned by now, be it from the empty, sourceless statements of a world leader, or just from sheer hope.
Earlier in the year, Andrew Bird was one such person looking to the future and how the current COVID-19 pandemic might alter future events and plans, leading him to write the song “Christmas In April” in the titular month. “I couldn’t help but wonder where we’ll be when the holidays come, if we could be together or not,” Bird mused when talking of the song’s creation, and it’s something a lot of us are still wondering over, even as Christmas looms at just over a month away.
Bird’s new release then, a full-length Christmas album entitled HARK!, seems to offer a remedy for any loneliness and despair we might find ourselves facing during the holidays. His work steps between amicably communal and peacefully lonesome. On a scratchy rendition of “White Christmas”, he sounds like he’s playing alone in a candlelit room, whereas on “Auld Lang Syne” he has a small band around him, ending the album on a delightful, rustic, and jaunty note that will likely have you rushing in the New Year all the faster.
The enjoyment to be gotten from HARK! comes from Bird’s humble approach to Christmas music, mixing together a few originals with lesser-known covers, Christmas standards, and a few re-interpretations of his own songs. For a style of music that is synonymous with indulgence and even gaudiness, there’s barely an ounce of it present here. HARK! may not explicitly give you those ‘Christmas Feels™’ (both good and bad) the way Mariah Carey or Bing Crosby might, but it’ll serve as a welcome soundtrack to the more everyday moments Christmas brings, like working from home in days leading up to the 25th, or just sitting and digesting copious amounts of turkey. The whistle-led rendition of “Oh Holy Night” casts it like a lullaby, but it still retains the impactful swell of the original tune, while the aforementioned “Christmas In April” has a laidback amble that ushers in a wintry feel that will be pleasant all year round.
Indeed, while some songs here may be immediately synonymous with Christmas (“White Christmas”, Christmas Is Coming”, Oh Holy Night”), Bird’s balancing of light and dark, warm and cold, and happy and sad allow it be more of a seasonal record than a holiday one. He explores a frigid, chilly tone on “Alabaster” as he observes “days are growing shorter / nights are growing longer” while a gentle rustle of sleigh bells goes by in the background. On “Greenwine” he paints a grey country tale of Christmas alcoholism and abuse, and on “Night’s Falling” he recasts a 2009 Noble Beast outtake (originally titled “Take Courage”) from a peppy, summery cut into a slow, plodding track with lurching double bass, glistening keys, and the feel of a nightlight kept on during the darkest winter night.
On the flip side to that you have upbeat takes on Vince Guaraldi’s classic Peanuts score. Recorded last year, Bird gathered together a small trio of other musicians, and it’s nice to hear him have fun with the classics and touching on his jazz roots. “Skating” isn’t delicate like ice as on the original, but it’s scrappy energy lends itself to giving off charm. Likewise with “Christmas Is Coming” which, with whistling aplenty, is perfectly amicable for background holiday listening. Equally upbeat is Bird’s version of John Prine’s “Souvenirs”, which exudes a vibrant, almost calypso feel.
For fans of Bird who have been following his every move, then a great deal of the material won’t be entirely new. Six of the album’s tracks were released as an EP under the same name last year, while “Auld Lang Syne” appeared on a 2012 compilation of festive tunes by indie artists. Still, the new material (even if it is just re-workings of familiar tracks like the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine, Merry Christmas” into “Greenwine”) is as welcome as anything else from the Illinois-born multi-instrumentalist. Bird has always been about reinvention and reimagining, and HARK! even manages to capture a few new sonic elements, like the vocal-led arrangements of “Andalucia”, the brief minor key plunges of darkness on “Alabaster”, the grit in his voice on “Souvenirs”, or the glistening stillness of “Night’s Falling.”
But, if HARK! is anything then it’s a small and wholesome testament to community, friends, and the hope we can give other human beings. The relaxed, loose playing of the other musicians alongside Bird brings an air of friendliness that seems to relay a reminder that there are lots of like-minded, friendly people out there in the world. The collaborative feel of the album even extends into the striking artwork: Bird collaborated with his mother to create it, something which they haven’t done since 2002. And added to that, Bird even manages to extend a personal arm of his Christmas, including a short take of “Mille Cherubini in Coro” as inspired by his mother playing tapes of Pavarotti when he was younger. Wrapped up altogether, it makes for a welcome Christmas album with roots in folk, country, jazz, and friendship. HARK! will no doubt be a friend to many during a different and potentially difficult holiday season.