Do we really need another Christmas album? You might not think so right now, but Andrew Bird’s full album version of last year’s six-song ‘Hark!’ EP might convince you that there is room for this one. Bird with understatement acknowledges that “It’s a complicated relationship many of us have with the holidays and the requisite music we hear.” Traditional Christmas standards might well put some people’s teeth on edge, but Bird’s reworkings are far enough removed from the originals that ‘Hark!’ turns out to be an incredibly pleasant album, full of metaphors about light and darkness, comfort and warmth.
His upbeat jazz instrumentals were influenced by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi, whose ‘Skating’ is covered here. Guaraldi is known for his Peanuts cartoon soundtracks, so if the overall vibe leans toward ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ that’s why.
The only connection to the holiday itself that songs like ‘Alabaster’ and John Cale’s ‘Andalucia’ have is a reference to snow and, in Cale’s case, Christians. There’s a feeling of longing in Bird’s Orbison-like voice and unrivalled pizzicato technique on the violin.
The addition of the gentle and poignant ‘Christmas in April,’ probably the first-ever coronavirus carol, makes upgrading to the album worthwhile. Bird sings,“Oh my love, when will we know / when we can meet under the mistletoe?” He appreciates the oddity of writing a Christmas song in April, back when everyone was reassuring each other that lockdowns would be over by December. Bird has been keeping fans company in the interim with his daily Instagram songs. ‘Christmas in April’ and John Prine’s ‘Souvenirs’ are both good arguments for giving the album a place in the modern Christmas canon alongside Low’s 1999 EP and ‘A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector’(1963).
The notable exception to the new songs is ‘Greenwine,’ an altered version of fellow Illinois natives The Handsome Family’s classic ‘So Much Wine,’ put to a dolorous rendition of ‘Greensleeves’/‘What Child is This?’. The song is about a break-up with an alcoholic who has just ruined Christmas, which is not a cheerful storyline to begin with, but Bird’s version is devoid of the original’s wry, pissed-off, shoulder-shrugging fatalism.
His bouncy version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ undoubtedly would have once ended up on a Starbucks holiday compilation CD. ‘White Christmas’ in stripped-down form, with just Bird, his acoustic guitar, and his amazing whistle, is a completely new creation.
Bird’s annual week of holiday shows in Chicago is a holiday staple for fans lucky enough to be nearby. For the rest of the world, ‘Hark!’ is a very welcome gift.
Andrew Bird expands his holiday repertoire with an updated full-length 'Hark!'