Eight albums and almost 20 years into her career, and it’s somewhat surprising that it took so long for Norah Jones to release a full-length Christmas album. She recorded seasonal fare before, including duetting with legends Cyndi Lauper and Willie Nelson on holiday standards “Home for the Holidays” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, respectively, as well as a five-track Christmas EP with her alt-country side project, Puss N Boots. But she bided her time before putting out a Christmas LP. An artist like Norah Jones seems tailor-made for Christmas music, so it’s odd that she took so long, but the sweet and cozy I Dream of Christmas was well worth the wait.
Jones’ dreamy jazz-pop always felt somewhat nostalgic, and there’s also a feeling of a throwback with her Christmas debut. It recalls the Christmas albums of the 1960s by Peggy Lee, Doris Day, or Barbra Streisand. Christmas records are meant to be played in the background as a festive ambiance for holiday parties, romantic evenings in front of a crackling fire, or while trimming the tree. Jones does a fabulous job of putting together a collection of tranquil, restful tunes that will set the appropriately Christmasy mood.
A mixture of Christmas classics and originals, I Dream of Christmas is thoroughly elegant, the equivalent of a flute of Prosecco. The tunes that Jones penned fit comfortably with the standards because she gets why so many Christmas songs feel evergreen: she wraps her languid, purring voice around comforting and inviting arrangements. Though I Dream of Christmas is being released during the second holiday season during the pandemic, the album is refreshingly lacking in angst or melancholy. Instead, there’s a restorative chumminess and winking flirtatiousness that belies the troubled times in which we live.
In keeping with the cool, sexy tone, Jones eschews the more melancholic Christmas tunes like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and instead goes for poppier lighter fare. When looking to contemporary carols, she turns to Ross Bagdasarian’s novelty classic “Christmas Don’t Be Late”, made famous by the high-pitched vocals of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Instead of hewing to the song’s original 1960s pop arrangement, Jones slows down the swinging tempo, remaking the comedy carol into a saucy, torchy chanteuse number.
Jones visits another animated holiday classic, covering Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi’s original sounds like something Jones would record, so her take is pretty faithful, with her sinewy vocals taking the place of the chirping children’s choir of the older song. The song has been recorded many times and it enjoys a reverence which leads most renditions to be close to Guaraldi’s. Jones’ version doesn’t reinvent anything, but so much of Christmas is about the familiar (especially now) that it feels appropriate she doesn’t do anything too radical.
Other classics on I Dream of Christmas do benefit from Jones’ special touch. Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” is a recast of a rock and roll number to a simmering, sensual midtempo tune. Jones takes the “blue” from her take on “Blue Christmas” and turns Elvis Presley’s soulful pop ballad into a languorous bluesy dirge. And the usually-sprightly “Winter Wonderland” is turned into an idiosyncratic, curious carol, complete with ghostly synths and steel guitars that lend an almost-Hawaiian feel to the song.
Two tunes represent the Great American Songbook on this set, and both get relatively straightforward interpretations by Jones. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” has been revisited so many times that it seems nearly impossible to do anything radical with it. Jones doesn’t try. Instead, she offers a fine rendition. Her take on Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” is similarly faithful to the original, the steel guitar giving the song a soupcon of country and western affectations. Still, like with the Berlin number, this song has been covered too many times for any novel interpretations of it anymore.
Of the originals, the opening number, “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)”, is remarkable because it captures the kind of timeless loveliness of the classics on the record. It could be the arrangements that stick to the jazz-pop that make the song feel as if it were written by Guaraldi in the 1960s as well as Jones’ charming vocal performance. However, the song is a beautiful pastiche of a contemporary jazz-pop and Christmas pop with an eye toward those swinging Christmas records of the 1960s. It’s a rare contemporary Christmas song that sounds like a Christmas standard (akin to Mariah Carey’s Phil Spector homage “All I Want for Christmas (Is You)”.
I Dream of Christmas feels like a soothing salve on what seems like another troubled holiday season. The record is a wonderful soundtrack to the upcoming festivities and should be on the playlist of everyone’s Christmas party.