LABEL : ONE LITTLE INDEPENDENT
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: A big-hearted, full-throated, grown up throwing of the doors open to everyone who needs Christmas.
I still believe in the magic of Christmas. I still believe in the story of Jesus, born to ordinary people in humble origins. I still do a check at the start of each advent that I remember the words to ‘Fairytale…’ As an auditory learner, Christmas connects first through my ears. So Christmas music is a serious business; a difficult business, a festive tightrope act across a string of lights. It is a business that Kathryn Williams and Carol Ann Duffy have utterly succeeded in. Their new Christmas album Midnight Chorus manages to avoid sour cynicism and suffocating tastefulness. It holds this in common with everything still worth believing in about Christmas, it is more than the sum of its considerable parts.
Built out of friendship between one of the UK great folk voices and songwriters, Kathryn Williams, and poetic national treasure, Carol Ann Duffy, Midnight Chorus is an indie folk album of original songs. In Williams & Duffy’s hands, ‘folk’ doesn’t mean an enthrallment to history, or a reverse anti-consumerist elitism. This is a humble album, with less ambition to be the greatest Christmas ever, but more to tell Christmas like it is in Britain 2021.
These songs welcome the traditions and iconography of Christmas like an Aunt coming to stay, they get a big hug and a raised eyebrow when they’re early on the sherry. Duffy has a way of using double meanings that dignify both the simple acts of celebrating Christmas and their wider, deeper meanings. There are cards that say less than you’d hope and cracker jokes that land their punchlines. There are carols and the canon of Christmas pop; a little miracle of zeitgeist catching with the Beatles themed ‘Hope Street’. More importantly, these songs are populated with strugglers, stragglers, and saints. Duffy’s lyrics vulnerably carry a candle into the liminal spaces that bind the doubtfully faithful to the faithfully doubtful.
At the centre of the album is ‘Mary’s Cariad’. Simply performed with a piano, it is a stunning, holy, retelling of the Christmas story. It deserves, some year, to be sung at Kings on Christmas Eve. It’s a reminder that if there is to be light in the world, it needs to named and it needs to be nurtured.
‘Cariad’ is a Welsh word meaning beloved or sweetheart. The geography of this album is important. ‘Apostle’ references the Tyneside shipyards and ‘Moniack Mhor’ is set in the hills of Scotland. The promotional videos for the album both have a small town, northern feel. Maybe there’s something of the tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins or RS Thomas in the desire to head to the edges going on here. Maybe it’s just that the first and twenty-first centuries have this in common, the big city belongs to the Herods and the hills belong to the angels.
Although the quality of music never drops below charming, there is something particular and deeply Christmassy that happens on Midnight Chorus when it drops into 3/4 time. ‘Dear Lord’ wraps itself around the listener, hitting a hitherto unknown sweet spot between ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘Bird On A Wire’. Album opener ‘Hang Fire’ is an open hand inviting you to waltz, while ‘Snow Angel’ is virtually pleading to be allowed to shuffle into a chorus of ‘Silent Night’. Best of all is ‘All Ye Doubtful’, a big-hearted, full-throated, grown up throwing of the doors open to everyone who needs Christmas.
Christmas is a story that happens at the margins and Midnight Chorus understands and cherishes that fact. This album is for people who understand that Christmas continues to be defined in small churches and pub conversations, around tables and trees. And somehow, that’s all of us, a ‘chorus of our united hearts.’