Monday, April 8, 2013

Getting Ready for Christmas Day

When a musician tries on a new style or sound, an excited album often results. By the time of the follow-up, the boil has died down to a simmer. But that just means more focus, not less energy, once the new techniques have been mastered and controlled. For instance, after the ebullient Graceland, Simon returned with the relatively subdued Rhythm of the Saints. Similarly, after the kid-in-a-candy-store sound of Surprise, he came back with the more contemplative So Beautiful or So What. Now, the electronics have been stirred into Simon's alchemy, along with the folk, gospel, world, and other sounds he had already added.

While this song is ostensibly about Christmas, we can expect that it will not find its way onto any Yuletide compilation or caroling songbook. That is because, as Christmas songs go, it is not only somber but frustrated and even cynical in tone. The rewrite of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" contains the line "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough," but the original line was "We'll have to muddle through somehow." Which is more the tone here.

It starts with a man bemoaning how "money matters" are "weighing" on him. The timing of this financial crisis is in line with Christmas-gift buying season. Even before he mentions the holiday, he speaks of "merry" music, then explains that "Santa Claus is coming to town," and of course someone has to buy that bagful of presents: "It all comes down to working man's pay."

Then the song takes an unexpected twist. We shift to the voice of a preacher, one Rev. J.M. Gates, in a sermon he recorded back in 1941. Based in Atlanta, Gates released some 200 recordings-- both sermons and songs-- over nearly two decades. This homily comes from late in his recording career.

For Gates, Christmas Day sounds more like Judgement Day. He says that, while you are "getting ready for Christmas Day," so are the "undertaker... jailer, lawyer, [and] police."

The workingman now returns, this time telling about his nephew, a soldier fighting the War in Iraq. In fact, he has returned to battle no fewer than three times! His uncle wryly opines that the fighter will be defending our freedom of religion while "eating [his] turkey dinner/ On some mountaintop on Pakistan." As for the war, for all of the carnage and expense, it's "ending up the way it began."

Now it's Gates' turn again. This time, he says you might be planning a trip for the holiday. However, you just as easily "be laying in some lonesome grave" by then. You never know, he shrugs, "where you'll be." You could be saying "I'm going and see [sic] my relatives in a distant land," thinking you mean that literally, when in fact that "distant land" might be Heaven... where we all have relatives.

Then the workingman has the final word: "If I could tell my Mom and Dad"-- "if" implying that he can't, as they have passed on-- "the things we never had/ Never mattered." Yes, he and his siblings never had much... but, he says, "we were always OK." But here he is, knocking himself out with two jobs to buy presents. So what is he doing?

Christmas is a time of expectation that almost never matches, in reality, the fantasy it engenders. Undertakers, police officers and soldiers work on Christmas, and at grim jobs at that. The presents received are almost immediately forgotten (or broken) no matter how long it took to earn the money for them.

Further, the "merry" music piped into the stores and our of our televisions drowns out the sacred meaning of the day. Forget the gift-wrapping, the cake-baking, and the tree-trimming-- Jesus is about to be born! How are you getting ready for that?

Musical Note:
Simon has been married to Edie Brickell since 1992, and he co-produced her first solo album, 1994's Picture Perfect Morning. However, her backing vocals here may be the first time they have been recorded singing together.

Brickell, of course, is a singer-songwriter in her own right, having scored hits with her band New Bohemians; their best-known track is "What I Am," with its famous line: "What I am is what I am-- are you what you are, or what?" She is now the lead singer of The Gaddabouts, named after its founder (and longtime Simon session player), master drummer Steve Gadd.

And in 2013, she released a song with another longstanding friend of Simon's, comedian and bluegrass banjo player Steve Martin.

In addition to the Gates sermon, the song also samples "Me Deixa Em Paz (Leave Me Alone)" by Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, with whom Simon has collaborated before, notably on "Spirit Voices." Literally, the title of the sampled song means "leave me in peace."

Simon is still on tour for this album, as of this writing. It was very successful, reaching #4 in the US (and Sweden) and #6 in the UK (and also Croatia, Denmark, and the Netherlands), going all the way to #2 in Norway. It also hit the Top Ten in Canada, The Czech Republic, and Ireland... the Top 50 in other EU nations and Australia, and even #75 in Japan.

Critically, it was Rolling Stone's #3 best album of 2011, and received high praise all around.

Next Song: The Afterlife

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