We all have our favorite albums that get heavy rotation during the Christmas and Advent season. It’s rare to come across a new Christmas album that stands out as being worthy of joining the hallowed ranks of our standard collections: in part because making a Christmas album that stands out is difficult. The stakes are high, the audience is tough: no other season is as emotionally-charged, or as existentially meaningful (for many), as that of the Christmas season, and the songs people desire to hear at this time are usually the ones they’ve heard since childhood. The exact same ones. “Nobody does “White Christmas” like Bing,” they’ll say.
And it’s true. Nobody does sing that song quite like Bing. He made it his own. But there are still some musicians out there who are managing to leave a meaningful mark with seasonal music, and the one I am currently most impressed with is Matt Maher, who released his first Christmas album, entitled The Advent of Christmas, this past October.
Maher has consistently proven himself to be a solid musician, writer, and performer in the Christian music world. And, although he has released Christmas singles in the past, a full-length album had remained on his to-do list for years. In a Love Good interview with Jimmy Mitchell, Maher explains how each year, he’d hear something – a sound, a phrase, a melody-line – during Advent and Christmas time and would tuck it away in his mind for later. Now, we’re fortunate to hear all of those bits and pieces as they’ve come together to form a truly distinct and enjoyable album that successfully straddles the line between old and new – without sounding like mimicry.
The 13 tracks offer a wide swath of sonic texture. Thoughtfully engineered synth and electronic sound design feature frequently throughout the album, bringing a Mannheim Steamroller vibe to classic hymns such as “Gabriel’s Message” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel“. Certain songs, like “Born on that Day,” pulse naturally within the soft rock vein, and stand as shining examples of music that doesn’t pull any punches lyrically or stylistically, and is all the stronger for it. Elements of Maher’s jazz training – and music theory acumen – come through on “The First Noel” and “When I Think of Christmas”; and boisterous versions of “Jingle Bells”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” each bring decidedly unique flavors to deeply familiar songs (Jingle Bells, in particular, might surprise you: Maher certainly reinvented it).
The stand-out song on the album – the one that stands as its thesis statement (if you look up the roots of that word, you’ll see just how apt it is here!) – is “Hope For Everyone”. Reminiscent of a Welsh lullaby, a single strum pulses beneath Maher’s clear, warm voice. The tag “there’s hope for everyone,” circles back again and again until the refrain drops down, changes register – and it floods over your shoulders with its warmth and harmony. The chorus hits like a Gospel anthem: worshipful, reverent, entirely focused on the the coming of the Messiah.
There is joy, whimsy, contemplation, anticipation, remembrance, festivity, and family expressed in this collection of songs. Above all, the concept of hope as being within the reach of every human being is reiterated again and again throughout the album, specifically in Maher’s original tracks (which make up the majority of the songs). The name Emmanuel is sung loudly and fearlessly, as it ought to be. “What good news they bring. There’s hope for everyone. We are waiting on the promise – for the One who lights the darkness.”
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