It took me one year to write about this album. When “A Very Chilly Christmas” came out, I was simply too overwhelmed with emotions. When I say I love Christmas music, don’t imagine an American tourist accent, but rather an R’n’B type timbre. 9 years ago, Andrew and I (together we are “SoloGonzales”) compiled a wish list of favourite things from our favourite artist. One of them said “A Christmas album”. So when he actually did it, its beauty blew me away – and the fact that Gonz saved Christmas (music).
Every year in early November I look for new Christmas music like kids for snow, only to end up retreating to any carol that good old Aretha, Mahalia, and Ella ever sang. I guess we all know this feeling of too much of everything, and this particularly applies to “new” interpretations of season staples: too much fake happiness, too much perfection, too many bells, too many strings, too much glitter and gold, too little authenticity. And then there’s the effect of “wear and tear”. Mariah and George are both amazing in their own ways, but with some years gone by and after heavy rotation, all I want for Christmas is silence once the day of Jesus’ birthday has arrived. It’s like growing out of your favourite Christmas sweater when every seam starts to itch and you simply want to rip it off—until 2020 when Gonzales gifted us with “A Very Chilly Christmas”.
The antidote to Coca Cola Christmas
The album feels like Gonzo freed the decade and century-old tunes from all the pomp and circumstance, the abuse, the capitalistic cheap tricks and the love and lifeless clutter. He deconstructed, reassembled and resurrected them (okay, that’s an Easter analogy), so they can resonate with our collective consciousness again. Christmas used to be a time of reflection, family and contemplation – and then the Coca Cola truck came along with shrill fake sleigh bells, blinking lights, that too-much-of-everything type music and a fat, company-colored mascot called Santa who secretly stole the ghost of Christmas past and ultimately our innocence. The holiday has become a commercial feast and whereas the actual Grinch first destroys Christmas, then reconnects with himself and experiences human connection and warmth, pot-belly Claus reigns over the land of milk and money and is never satisfied.
Gonzales’ album is the antidote to Coca Cola Christmas. It’s the essence of Christmas, an ear elixir to indulge in the melancholy, the bareness, the nostalgia, and the vulnerability this time brings. It gives you minor chords (of course), goosebumping, deep cello strokes, heavenly harpsichord, elfin Feist and soothing tale-teller Jarvis, Enya-type angelic voices, gentle bells – and lots of space for the melodies to unfold in unknown and forgotten ways and with unexpected twists. A bluesy “O Tannenbaum”, jazzy, suspenseful “Jingle Bells”, ethereal “We Three Kings”—“A Very Chilly Christmas” is the surprise gift you’ve been hoping to find under the tree since you were a child. There are many musical references weaved in as well, but my friend Andrew is by far better in elaborating on them (and he hopefully will latest next year).
Universal pieces that suddenly speak – without the lyrics
“A Very Chilly Christmas” even achieved something I never deemed possible: It made me rediscover a carol, “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging”. The story and symbolism of the song is simple, but powerful: Pregnant Mary approaches a “forest of thorns” that has not blossomed in 7 years—when she passes, roses bud. It’s a story of transformation, hope, and change. Without the heavy lyrics and stripped down to the piano, the tune flourishes differently, too. Its reduction to the core and liberated from the verbal chains of Catholicism, it becomes a universal piece that all of a sudden speaks to me.
That’s the overall magic of the more traditional songs on the album: the choice to take a pass on vocals is a choice on taking a pass on the religious connotation. It’s a choice to take down a barrier for some and offer a more unifying approach to Christmas music. Christmas might be a Christian holiday, yet its melodies are atheists who have been “instrumentalized” by institutions. The only songs that are sung, “The Banister Bough” (the only new composition), “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Snow is Falling in Manhattan” are more winter than Christmas tunes. Even more, as in “In the Bleak Midwinter” Jarvis Cocker’s recital stops right before the word “Angels” and leaves out the religious part of the carol. “A Very Chilly Christmas” is a humanistic hymnal, your companion through a bittersweet season, it captures the spirit of Christmas in a philosophical sense. It’s the one and only Christmas album you need in your life.