If you're shortlisting artists who would be better off avoiding a Christmas album, Conor Oberst in any of his musical dalliances would assuredly make an appearance. This is a fiery wisp of a man who once shouted about the President and God convening to decide "which convicts should be killed" and chuckled at the notion of a love that would never die. It's not that he isn't musically up to the task, it's that his often dour outlook on: friendships, relationships, and religion runs counter-intuitive to the entire season. Still that sullen outlook didn't stop Oberst and his Bright Eyes collaborators from recording and originally releasing a collection of holiday tunes in 2002, as part of the Nebraska AIDS Project. And now, 11 years later, the album has returned like the ghost of Christmas past.
The first big surprise you get upon welcoming this holiday visitor into your home, is that Oberst's voice isn't the first you hear on the record. Maria Taylor's haunting coo greets everyone with "Away in a Manger". Like the unadorned stable the savior was born into, the track is relatively unfettered. An aqueous drum beats away in the background, small piano chords come in and out, a singing saw materializes out of nowhere only to disappear again. And then there's a fading clatter that goes through several incarnations, recalling a bored family member flicking through holiday reruns while everyone else opens presents. As a scene-setter, it's perfect. We're welcomed into a world where people gather together without really communing. Where gift-giving frequently turns to squabbling and feasts become fights.
Oberst's solo take on "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" indirectly tackles this discord. With his voice as delicate as a glass ornament on the tree, he sings praises "to God the King and peace to men on Earth." But that delicate voice seems to linger most on "the hopes and fears of all the years." The peace we seek is trampled by our worried minds and "human hearts" which so often lead us astray. Following the "everlasting light" is "easy" in theory; much more difficult in practice.
This strange dichotomy becomes an underlying focus of the sparse, reverb-laden "Silent Night". How can a time so effuse with "hustle and bustle" be anything close to silent? It's not hard to imagine, that if the nativity scene happened circa 2013 few if any passersby would remain quiet. They might snap a picture or two, and then be off to the next Christmas party or store. Radiant beams reflecting off the baby Jesus' face pale in comparison to a shiny new Xbox.
Despite a long-streak of religious skepticism, Oberst and company do seem to be doing some form of proselytizing on A Christmas Album. When he warbles "remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day" during mandolin-backed, folk-stomper "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" he's urging us all not to lose sight of "the reason for the season." And while that reason is traditionally grounded by theistic implications, it doesn't have to be. An entirely non-religious person can still follow the example Christ set out without following him. A great point of the story, whether you believe it or not, is that we should all be willing to give to others without expecting anything in return. It isn't easy by any means; any form of "sacrifice" rarely is. But when you see the warm of glow of another's face as they open a gift you provide without any strings attached, giving freely becomes a bit easier.
Sometimes that glow can fade and the tintinnabulation of bells will grow quiet, as they do on "Blue Christmas". Here Oberst has no one to share in the season with. He's all alone watching the last ember of a crackling fire die out. "Blue memories" are all that continue to burn. Miraculously though, the fire returns on the simmering Oberst/Taylor feature "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". The only memories that matter are those "happy days of yore", when the future seemed so bright. Push all the: fighting, failed relationships, selfishness, and anger aside. Pretend all the troubles that have plagued us long before that famous nativity are miles away, even if it's just for one day in the cold of winter.