I picked this one up last year at the main Half-Price Books here in Dallas and have been having fun with it ever since. The CD itself is in three parts. The first part is Elvis doing some secular Christmas numbers, including the fun, boisterous “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” That’s the first six tracks, and they’re perfect for those Christmas parties where people are more concerned with having fun than doing something religious. There’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion, as there is a great cultural agglomeration around Christmas that has more to do with it as an American holiday than as a strictly Christian one. These are for fun and having some holiday cheer.
The next eight tracks are for the Christians observing Christmas. They include four standard Christmas hymns with four other spirituals all done in a deeply reverent style. Those are the ones I’m listening to right now to finish off my Christmas Day festivities. It’s no secret that I’m Christian, and I love taking time to remember the spirit of the season from the perspective of my religion. If you don’t like that sort of thing, this third of the album isn’t for you. If you do like that sort of thing, get thee hence and acquire it. Elvis’ arrangements are classics in their own right and his voice sings out clear and pure with an incredible range and emotion behind it. Yes, there are aspects of the first six of these songs that date them to the 1950s, but I like those aspects. You have to take the music in a larger context and hear that voice of Elvis’. That voice is timeless and is what demands to be listened to, even though on these tracks the singer is not at all concerned with himself, but with his relationship with Jesus and God. His performance on “O Come All Ye Faithful” is beautiful and breathtaking. For me, this is my favorite part of the album, and it’s for private moments of reflection.
The last two gospel songs and the following nine tracks come to us from Elvis circa 1971, 14 years after the first 12 tracks. The remaining nine I haven’t yet described are all Christmas standards like “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells.” While the 1957 secular tracks are playful and even edgy, these recordings are straight-ahead renditions that stay faithful to the conventions surrounding them. That’s not to say they’re not worth hearing: it’s just to say that this is Elvis at a more mature phase of his career and that’s reflected in the way he handles his material. He’s still ever the master craftsman with his performances and just because he’s more serious and straightforward doesn’t take away from his voice and passion. Personally, I like my Christmas songs done in a restrained style: Trans-Siberian Orchestra is all right for a little while, but it can leave me feeling a little bludgeoned after that little while. These arrangements are light and mobile and don’t do anything to offend. They’re fun and make a perfect soundtrack to the season.
On my 1-10 scale, I have to put it at a 9 for people that enjoy the spiritual aspects of the season and a 6 for those that prefer just a soundtrack for parties, and that’s only because you’ll be skipping a third of the album to get those party tunes. If you only want a gospel CD, this one’s a 3 on that scale and you’d be better off cherry-picking the MP3s you want with a digital download. I want it all, so I’m happy with my ranking it at a 9. It’s a great listen, but I tend to not play it all the way through. I’ll pick and choose based on my mood, but every track is one I enjoy in the proper context.