It is a bit of a misnomer to call this part one on account of having had a song ruin my day many times before, but today is the first day I have ever made myself stop and write about the experience.
I am listening right now to Sarah McLachlan's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I have been listening to this song repeatedly for well over an hour. This song may well have ruined my life. It has, at the very least, ruined my day. A full recovery is not expected.
The song is on her newly-released Christmas album, Wintersong. I looked forward to Wintersong because Sarah Mc has an angel's voice. Who would not want to listen to Christmas songs sung by an angel? Even if the Christmas spirit does not touch you, the traditional Christmas songs have some of the most beautiful melodies ever. Matching her voice and those songs seemed an absolute winner to me. What could go wrong?
There is nothing wrong with Wintersong. The idea of a Sarah McLachlan Christmas album is still a little better than the execution of it on Wintersong, but "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" more than validates it. It really is that good. Just as I will never want nor need to hear anyone other than Nat King Cole sing "The Christmas Song," I never need to hear another version of this song either.
That really is one of the great challenges of recording Christmas albums these days. For so many of the classic songs, classic performances have already been recorded. Just as an example, Sarah McLachlan takes a stab at John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." We can debate whether or not that is a Christmas classic, but we should all be thankful for a version without Yoko Ono's atonal warble. Still, the definitive version of that song exists. Lennon got it right the first time.
All Music Guide reveals 1,085 recordings of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." There may be more. There may be less. I am prepared, without having heard all of them, to declare the Wintersong version the definitive version. Let there not be a 1,086th.
What makes her version of this song so special? For starters, the low-key nature of the vocals. Many a golden-voiced diva has attempted these secular and sacred songs and oversung them in the most overwrought, overblown fashion. The lack of nuance in those performances assaults the song (and the listener) rather than interpreting it. On this song, and throughout the album, McLachlan resists the temptation to overdo it.
What makes this version of the song so wonderful is the way she phrases it and the slight hint of melancholy in her voice. It might seem odd to praise a little melancholy in such a happy song but it adds a hint of yearning and warmth to it. The wonderful phrasing is evident within its first 30 seconds. Any deviation from a melody so ingrained in our collective consciousness is going to cause you to take note, but this not just any deviation.
When she phrases the familiar refrain "faithful friends who are dear to us/gather near to us once more," the slightly mournful sound in her voice colors these lines. Those words are usually sung with anticipation; that next year’s gathering is a certainty. McLachlan sings them with hope, but also a hint of reservation. The sound of her voice allows us to imagine circumstances where next year might not be such a given when she delivers that next stanza, “through the years we all will be together/if the fates allow.”
This stirred thoughts of people wondering if this Christmas might be their last Christmas with a loved one. That might sounds a little morbid. Besides, the lyrics talk about troubles being a million miles away. McLachlan’s performance allowed me to imagine a family embracing this Christmas, and hoping maybe to get one more just like it.
Of course, death is not the only thing that comes between our loved ones and us at Christmas. While sitting at my desk at work listening to this song, I thought of our friends in South Carolina. Last year, we traveled to Columbia to spend time with them during the Christmas season. We plan to make that trip again this year as part of an ongoing tradition. We had hoped to see them in November, but real life intervened as it so often does. There may be years we cannot make that trip. I am thankful we did last year. I am hoping "the fates allow" a trip in just a few weeks. This song, one I have heard a thousand times, reached me in a new way through the power of an impossibly beautiful voice.
I realize this does not qualify was a balanced review of Wintersong, but the fact I listened to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" more than 50 times today should tell you something. Actually, it should tell you a lot although likely more about me than the record. I will let you tell me what this says about me in the comments.
As for Wintersong, I can guarantee you this record will come off the shelves every year, even if it is just to listen to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" another 50 times. It may have ruined my day, but made my holiday. We have a new holiday gold standard.