Friday, January 16, 2015

The Spirit of Christmas - Michael W. Smith & Friends


Christmas is like a well from which Smith continually draws majesty, wonder and beauty, and also a sense of nostalgia.

The Spirit of Christmas
Artist: Michael W. Smith & Friends
Label: Sparrow Records (Universal)
Length: 14 tracks/47:28 minutes

After three Christmas albums, one might think Michael W. Smith had done enough in a market segment even more disposable than pop music. This past December as I sorted through a mass of Christmas records in a Thrift store, the collector next to me commented that he listened to Christmas music just one day of the year. It was obvious that it had little value for him. Of course, I refrained from judging him and trying to persuade him that Christmas music includes some of the most exquisite ever created. 

Those tempted to think that someone like Michael W. Smith might be done with Christmas after three albums may not realize that this season brings out the best in him. It’s like an inexhaustible well that he draws from to create majesty, wonder and beauty. He is not alone! Jeff Johnson is another that truly stands out. Give any of his Christmas recordings a try.

On The Spirit of Christmas Michael W. Smith does it again in a new way. He collaborates with well-known, accomplished artists, many of them connected with country music, on a series of duets.

Don’t get the idea that the many country artists make this that type of an album. Smith especially aims for nostalgia on the first part of this recording. Backed by an orchestra providing some swing, Smith croons his way through “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Happy Holidays/Holiday Season.” The latter faithfully reproduces the echoing refrain found in the title, which has become so familiar to me through working retail during the Christmas season.

My experience of being subjected in retail to non-stop Christmas music gives me a unique perspective. As much as I like it, and as much as I might be opposed to torture, interrogating our enemies with non-stop Christmas music similar to the retail variety may be more humane than present means and accomplish desired ends more quickly. In particular, a Dixieland rendition of “Jingle Bells” may be singularly effective. The combination of tuba and a high-pitched brass instrument gets me every time.

Most of the Christmas recordings that I have are by Christian artists, and they have not included “Happy Holidays” and “White Christmas,” so I’m delighted to have excellent versions here. Just the other day I started to sing “White Christmas” while I was driving down the road. That would not have happened if I had not been listening to Lady Antebellum and Smith singing of snow, something I rarely see in coastal Eureka.

These classics might not have the spiritual content of the others, but they stand the test of time because they are so well-written. I appreciate the good will that permeates these songs. They are like a light against the darkness, bidding me to be of good cheer. 

The last half of the recording dives deeply into the spiritual side of the season. This includes “Almost There,” with Amy Grant. You don’t hear from Smith until he begins to gently echo the refrain on the second stanza. It’s such a beautiful entry for his voice, which complements Grant’s earnestness. Grant and Smith have had many wonderful moments together, and this has to be one of their finest. They co-wrote this new song with Wes King. It is of the same magnitude as Grant’s “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” and covers similar theological ground.

All of the females, including those from Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town, plus Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Nettles are angelic and powerful. They are a wonderful supplement and contrast to Smith.

The guys are represented by Vince Gill on “Christmas Time is Here,” a favorite song thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Bono of U2 fame has a short, spoken word segment titled “The Darkest Midnight.” Alas, iTunes won’t permit this as a separate download from the album. Bono’s voice never rises much above a whisper. Ethereal-sounding Celtic music provides an appropriate backdrop for this Christmas benediction.

Michael McDonald provides background vocals on “Peace,” an appropriate final track. It’s a plea for grace! It’s an acknowledgement that peace is only found in Christ.

2014 was a productive year for Smith with three releases: Hymns, Sovereign and The Spirit of Christmas.


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