Since Brian Wilson’s solo recording career became an ongoing project, he has more or less alternated between albums of new material and recordings of other people’s songs, done in his own style. What I Really Want For Christmas could just as easily have been titled Brian Wilson Reimagines Christmas, as for the most part the recordings are of traditional Christmas carols, reworked in the style of Wilson’s 60s material.
Released in October 2005, it was the first recording he released after Smile was completed (apart from a single, “Walking Down The Path Of Life”, released to benefit tsunami relief, after Markus Sundland, who played cello with the Stockholm Strings & Horns, who had toured with Wilson on the Smile tour, was killed in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami).
As his first work after Smile, it had a lot to live up to, and was rather disappointing to many fans as a result. Without those expectations, though, it’s actually a rather lovely little album – no masterpiece, of course, but in the top tier of Christmas albums, and well worth a listen when in a festive mood. While it doesn’t admit of as much analysis as the more major works, it’s an album well worth listening to for anyone who has any Christmas spirit at all (which, of course, not everyone will).
(All songs trad. arr. Brian Wilson, with lead vocals by Brian Wilson and falsetto vocals by Jeffrey Foskett, except where noted).
The Man with All the Toys
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Michael Love
The album starts with one of two remakes of tracks from The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. For the most part this is a note-for-note remake of the original track, apart from a drum intro and Wilson’s aged voice, until 1:14, at which point an organ-and-sax instrumental break kicks in. There’s then an extended version of the outro, before the song turns into a rather lovely fragment of “Joy To The World” (just the line “let every heart prepare Him room”, repeated to fade).
What I Really Want for Christmas
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Bernie Taupin
The title song, and one of two new originals recorded for the album, is a collaboration with Bernie Taupin, who is best known as the lyricist for many of Elton John’s biggest hits.
The song originally started out as a ballad written for Wilson’s wife Melinda, entitled “Nobody Ever Did Me Like You Do”, before Taupin added new lyrics. As with many of Wilson’s songs for the last decade or so, it’s a rather aimless, though pretty, song, with a verse consisting of a simple stop-start chordal melody on the piano, with Wilson singing Taupin’s bland, generic lyrics about peace and happiness over the top, and with a rather more coherent chorus.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
The first of the traditional carols is arranged as a sort of surf gospel song, with throbbing, tremeloed, reverbed guitar and Hammond organ giving it a vaguely threatening feel even as Wilson sings about “tidings of comfort and joy”. The organ gives it a feel vaguely like a 60s Atlantic soul record, even as the guitar roots it firmly in the surf genre. A decent track, although the closing saxophone solo is a little offputting.
O Holy Night
One of the more straightforward arrangements on the album, this version of the nineteenth-century carol places the melody over an instrumental bed similar to a stripped-down version of that for “Kiss Me Baby”, with 12/8 arpeggios on guitar, an organ pad, and occasional snare drum hits making up most of the instrumentation, until an instrumental break in which a typically lovely and sparse string arrangement from Mertens comes in.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Another straight take on a traditional carol, with the only unusual element being a huffing bass harmonica, until the 1:46 mark, when the song suddenly turns into a revved-up surf instrumental version of the song, with a guitar playing the melody, a flute countermelody, and the vocalists singing “oom bop didit” in the style of “This Whole World”. The song ends with Wilson’s young children wishing the listener a merry Christmas and happy new year.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
This version of the Charles Wesley hymn (with the traditional music by Mendelssohn) opens with a new a capella vocal intro, before going into a standard, rather martial, arrangement of the song. After the song proper ends, there’s a strings-and-organ instrumental rendition of the theme, before a repeat of the intro, this time accompanied by the full band, and with a very nice countermelody on strings, fades the song out.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Another one rearranged with a vaguely soulful feel, the combination of the 6/8 time signature, Hammond organ pad, and vaguely honky-tonk piano gives it something of the feeling of “Sail on Sailor”, but the massed backing vocals, strings, jew’s harp, and bass harmonica all make it a much lighter recording than that would suggest.
The First Noel
The main thing to notice with this song is the way in which the instrumental break and fade has a Leslie’d guitar doubled by tuned percussion (it sounds like a glockenspiel), creating the kind of unique texture that Brian Wilson’s best arrangements have, and which you hear nowhere else. A lovely performance, and Wilson’s straining for the highest notes on the last “noel”, while very obvious, only makes it sound more human and comforting.
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb
The only songwriting collaboration between two of the greatest songwriters of all time is unfortunately not up to either man’s highest standards. Musically, this is a rewrite of “Fairy Tale” from Gettin’ In Over My Head, and while the changes have improved it substantially it still falls a little flat. Webb’s lyrics, meanwhile, are more banal than his normal work, and the syllabics in the bridge sections don’t work well with Wilson’s less-than-perfect enunciation.
It’s very pretty, and a favourite of many fans, but it won’t win over anyone not already predisposed to like it.
Little Saint Nick
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Michael Love
This is as close as possible to a straight note-for-note remake of the Beach Boys’ original. Other than Wilson singing the lead instead of Love, most casual listeners would not notice that it was a new recording.
Deck the Halls
An uptempo version of the classic carol, taken far faster than the song usually is, with a new vocal intro which also doubles as a bridge to a new instrumental section, with ascending/descending scales on piano joined by bass harmonica and horn. One of the most joyous things on the album.
Auld Lang Syne
A remake of the a capella arrangement of the song from The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, with an extra verse but otherwise keeping to the earlier arrangement exactly.
On Christmas Day
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
The first of three bonus tracks, this was originally released as a free download on Wilson’s website. Wilson claimed at the time that he had the idea while at his children’s school, meeting their teacher, and heard the song in his head.
This seems very likely, but what seems odd is that no-one bothered to tell him that what he heard in his head wasn’t a new song, but an old one – the verse (which makes up the vast majority of the song) is melodically identical to “Bells of Christmas”, the song Alan Jardine, Michael Love, and Ron Altbach wrote for the unreleased 1977 Christmas album (and which was later rewritten with Wilson’s collaboration as “Belles of Paris” for the MIU Album).
This rewrite is undoubtedly better – lyrically it has nothing as clunky as “The omnipresent spirit of the world will sing”, and his new intro/bridge section makes more musical sense than the corresponding parts of “Bells of Christmas”, but there’s no question at all that this was an unconscious rewrite of the earlier song.
Joy to the World
Another bonus track, this one originally released on a 1997 various artists compilation, Christmas Spirit. This is possibly the most beautiful recording of Wilson’s solo career. The track is co-produced (uncredited) by Joe Thomas, but has little of the downsides of his normal work. Over a very simple synthesiser background, a stack of Wilsons sing in harmony, almost a capella. The vocals are as good as Wilson’s vocals always are when Thomas works with him (latterly Thomas has overused autotune, and his instrumental productions are abysmal, but he’s one of the few people who can get the best possible vocal performance out of Wilson).
Like many of the tracks here, this does not have many hooks for analysis – it’s a very simple, straightforward, performance of a beautiful hymn – but it’s quite lovely.
And the album finishes with another track originally made available for free download from brianwilson.com – an a capella performance of the first verse of “Silent Night”, by a multitracked stack-o’-Brians, followed by a brief spoken merry Christmas wish. Simple but effective.
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