Review Summary: A rural folk pandemic Christmas album. And a damn fine one at that.
Oh, my love, when will we know if we can meet under the mistletoe?
And I’m writing this song about Christmas in April this year, so I'm not sure what to think about that.
Over one million people have died since Andrew Bird first wrote ‘Christmas in April’, an original composition with the foresight to look ahead at what, even then, Bird suspected would be an unusual holiday season. He almost certainly had no idea the toll that this pandemic would take on all of us at that time, and it seems a bit trivial – downright selfish, even – to bask in the enjoyment of holiday music when folks we know, and hundreds of thousands that we don’t, are hoping for enough oxygen to make it through one more night. In counting the myriad ways in which I’m privileged, my to-date avoidance of the coronavirus is somewhere near the top of that list. Guilt isn’t an emotion I typically associate with the indulgence of the holiday traditions I hold dear, and although my priorities this coming holiday season will shift from self-centered rituals to doing what I can to aid others, it still helps – at least on an emotional level – to take comfort in the familiar. HARK!
is an album crafted with that in mind; it indirectly acknowledges the horrid circumstances, but also embraces the resultant isolation as an opportunity to reflect. It celebrates the holidays in heart and spirit, during a time when many won’t be able to celebrate it in person.
is an album that balances original compositions with the traditional holiday fare, sometimes even blending the two together. On some tracks Bird sings, and on others he merely whistles, but it’s a cozy atmosphere in which he recalls a wide array of comforting imagery. It’s very much an isolated, rural country aura – and Bird embraces the folk spirit immediately with ‘Andalucia’, a gorgeous opener (and John Cale cover) ripe with plucked acoustics and echoing Fleet Foxes-esque vocal refrains. It instills a beautiful sense of calm from the onset, which Bird maintains throughout all of HARK!
. He follows this moment up with three original (or semi-original) cuts in ‘Alabaster’, ‘Greenwine’, and ‘Christmas in April’. ‘Alabaster’ begins with haunting chants of “keep your lamp on” that mimic the tune of John Lennon’s ‘War is Over’ before opening up into lush violins and Bird cautioning, “Days are growing short, nights are growing longer / You gotta get much stronger, to make it through.” ‘Greenwine’ borrows the melody of ‘What Child is This?’ to narrate a depressing tale of alcoholism destroying a relationship: “You know there's only so much wine that you can drink in one life / But it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass.” In the story, the narrator (presumably Bird) gets into an altercation with an unspecified relative, close friend, or partner (“When you burnt your hair and you knocked over chairs / I just tried to stay out of your way”), leaves them passed out on the floor (“When you fell asleep with blood on your teeth / I just got in my car and drove away”), and then returns (“I get out to stare up at the stars, and as meteors died and shot across the sky / Just thought about your sad, shining eyes...When I went back for my clothes, when the sun finally rose / Oh, and you were still passed out on the floor”). It’s a simple and sad tale, but one that unfortunately impacts thousands of people during the holidays – especially in isolation – as they deal with substance abuse by loved ones…and often behind closed doors. ‘Christmas in April’ serves as the album's original inspiration – the track that led to HARK!
’s inception as Bird sat in quarantine at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: “Oh, my love, when will we know if we can meet under the mistletoe? / And I’m writing this song about Christmas in April this year, so I'm not sure what to think about that.” All of HARK!
isn’t so dreary and upsetting, but the way that it begins firmly plants it within this moment in history.
Things begin to take a lighter tone with his cover of John Prine’s country/Americana classic ‘Souvenirs’, in which he sings about the sort of thing that makes Christmas so special: memories that can’t be bought. Anyone who has followed Andrew Bird’s career is well aware of his penchant for whistling throughout his albums, and HARK!
continues that tradition. ‘Oh Holy Night’ is an eerily whistled inclusion that almost brings to mind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
– conjuring an ethereal and ghostly atmosphere. ‘Milli Cherubini in Coro’ whistles its way through the Franz Schubert original but adds in some rich violin cuts for good measure, while Alan Sherwood Hampton’s ‘Glad’ is entirely violin-driven with some sparse and subtle woodwinds. The Vince Guaraldi pieces ‘Christmas is Coming’ and ‘Skating’ are both upbeat toe-tappers that are almost jazzy in spots, riding the strength of their respective rhythm sections and giving one the hustle-and-bustle sensation of shopping at Macy’s in a busy New York City mall in December. While the back half of HARK!
is indeed comprised of mostly instrumental and whistling song covers, they all manage to maintain the rural folk/Americana vibe that was established from the album’s onset. Bird contributes vocals again on his renditions of ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (seriously, what Christmas album would be complete without these?), but his best effort on the back half of the tracklist comes via ‘Night’s Falling’ – an originally composed piece that provides an uplifting contrast to HARK!
’s gloomy start: “Night's falling, but you're not alone…no you're not alone / Take courage, that you're not alone.”
Crafting a Christmas album is often seen as kitschy – a cash-grab marketing ploy to exploit holiday shoppers. As a general rule, I’d have to agree. However, there are select few artists who I can honestly say have composed interesting and worthwhile holiday pieces during my lifetime. Sufjan Stevens has done it twice, to pinpoint a prime example. Andrew Bird joins such company with HARK!
. It’s a record that balances the darkness of a Christmas likely to be spent by many in quarantine with the magic and hope of the holiday season. It’s not an easy line to toe, but Andrew Bird’s skillful deployment of both original and classic tunes allows for these emotions to coexist. Even as a non-Christmas/holiday experience it warrants a listen; each song is memorable and the tracks are arranged in such a way that the classical complements the contemporary, and vice versa. HARK!
is a piece that uniquely captures Christmastime in 2020: it’s full of darkness and doubt, but eagerly gathering hope.