The slow bossa nova beat slinked its way into the room, sultry and impassioned. As Gwen stood by the stove prepping dinner, she began to involuntarily shift her hips back and forth to the rhythm.
Wrap me up in your love / wrap me up in your love / wrap me up in your love (this Christmas)
The lyrics weren’t as vibrant as the other tracks on the album, but John Legend made for a perfectly effective backdrop during the holiday season. Gwen hummed along.
Eleanor, for her part, lie lazily on the couch, her feet over the armrest, soaking in Legend’s score as the sunlight from the window began to tenderly fade away. ON her phone, she looked up which songs on the album were new compositions by Legend, and which were unknown classics.
“I could have sworn he wrote ‘Purple Snowflakes,'” Eleanor muttered. “It sounds so much like his other albums.”
“He’s an artist who borrows heavily from people who came before him. It helps his sound to feel more universal, more timeless,” Gwen suggested. “Which is exactly what you want in a Christmas album.”
“I was surprised he hadn’t done one before this,” Eleanor said. “Considering how huge he is. EGOT-winner and everything.”
“Literal Jesus,” Gwen referenced. “Did you know that Christmas albums used to be a thing no one wanted to do?”
“In the early days of the music industry, it was a kiss of death. Once you recorded a holiday album, it was a sign that you just needed to sell records. As opposed to, you know, forwarding your art, or whatever you do on a regular album.”
Eleanor considered this.
“Sure, but there are plenty of artists whose Christmas albums are now, like, the only album I know them for. The Charlie Brown Christmas guys, or Manneheim Steamroller.”
“Times changed,” Gwen said, regarding Legend’s dulcet tones once again. “Now John Legend has a Christmas album as his first follow up post-EGOT.”
“It’s a great album, though,” Eleanor said. “I could decorate a tree to this.”
Gwen smiled. “Is that your metric?”
“I mean, yes,” Eleanor said. “In my view, holiday songs only work if they’re able to be background noise to other locations. Coffee shops, decorating montages, supermarkets, morning radio. I don’t like the novelty songs like ‘Frosty The Snowman’ or ‘Rudolph’ or whatever. Give me ‘Silver Bells.'”
“You like ‘Silver Bells?'” Gwen winced. “It’s slow and dull.”
“I like songs that can create an atmosphere, not punch through it,” Eleanor said. “And besides, John Legend’s cover of ‘Silver Bells’ is one of the best songs on this album.”
Eleanor glared at Gwen, who looked with intense focus at her meal preparation. “You know it is, Gwen,” she repeated. “I’ve heard you singing along to it.”
“He makes effective use of time signature shifting throughout the album,” Gwen said. “It helps to liven things up. He performs the chorus of ‘Silver Bells’ in 4/4 time, and the rest of the verses in cut time. “Christmas Time Is Here” uses the same substitution –– it becomes almost a 12-bar blues by the end.”
“He’s a smart dude.”
I’m a thousand miles away, John Legend began, introducing the next song. It’s not snowing in L.A. / But I’m phoning just to say / I’m sorry…
Gwen exited the kitchen to point at the speaker. “All right, this song. This song…”
“He wrote this one,” Eleanor indicated.
“Yes, and it’s my favorite new song on the album,” Gwen said. “So simple, and the most impassioned lyrics out of everything.
I’m gonna walk / If I have to run / I’ll stand on the highway / and stop someone…
“Does John Legend have kids?”
“He’s married to Chrissy Teigen.”
“Chrissy Teigen and John Legend are married?”
“Eleanor, this is not new information.”
“Whatever. So he’s got kids.”
“Okay, that explains the passion in the lyrics about getting home for Christmas,” Eleanor said. “Although, that could kind of be any John Legend song.”
“There’s more than that,” Gwen said. “It’s a statement song. Everything you say about Christmas songs wanting to blend in –– I want them to stand out. Be about the season in a really clear way. I think that’s this song.”
“Hmm,” Eleanor murmured. “My vote for Best New Song By John Legend On The Album goes to ‘No Place Like Home,’ the one he co-wrote with Ruth-Anne Cunningham. But fine.”
“That one’s okay,” Gwen said. “It’s a little smooth listening, but…well, I suppose that’s why you like it.”
“Exactly,” Eleanor smiled. “It’s casual, about hanging out at the holidays. It’s also –– okay, this might just be a John Legend thing, but out of the six songs that he wrote for the album, five of them can be summarized with ‘I’m alone on Christmas and would prefer not to be alone on Christmas.'”
“Is that not 90% of popular music, though?” Gwen asked. “The conflict of ‘I’m alone and want to not be alone?'”
“Sure, but not 90% of Christmas music,” Eleanor countered. “Anyway, it’s why I like ‘No Place Like Home.’ It’s just a little slow jam about staying indoors and celebrating Christmas however you want to. Casually and what not.”
“What about favorite song not by John Legend on the album?” Eleanor asked. “I mean, not written by him.”
“Oh, the duet of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ with Esperanza Spalding, no question,” Gwen said. “I swear he sounds like Bing Crosby for a few seconds at the very beginning.”
Gwen picked up a phone and tapped back a few songs. The orchestral intro led into Legend singing the song’s first verse, accompanied by a repeating straight-laced hi-hat rhythm that kept the song from falling into a 3/4 time pocket until deep into the lyrics. The tension repeated when Spalding’s voice cut in, adding a new dimension to an otherwise standard swing chart.
Less than a minute into the song, Dania emerged from her room, called to attention by Spalding’s voice.
“I knew that would bring you in,” Gwen joked.
“I just really really like her,” Dania said warmly. “It breaks my heart that she doesn’t play the bass on this song.”
“Does she not?” Eleanor asked. ” I figured that was her in the back.”
“Well, yeah, but I mean as a solo,” Dania said. “I just want more Esperanza Spalding in everything. Even the parts where she’s scatting random notes sounds just like her other albums.”
“Well, the whole album sounds just like a John Legend album, just with a Christmas filter placed over it,” Eleanor added. “Like, if you’re a fan of Christmas but not John Legend––”
“Yeah, unlikely, but sure,” Eleanor agreed. “If that’s the case, the album will likely not convert you, since it’s mostly John Legend picking his favorite Christmas songs with no real huge names attached.”
“Stevie Wonder’s on the first song,” Gwen pointed out. “He’s a huge name.”
“It’s his song, ‘What Christmas Means To Me,'” Dania added. “And does he even sing on it? I think he’s just playing the harmonica at the end.”
“I mean big names like song titles,” Eleanor said. “‘White Christmas,’ ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,’ you know. Legend picked some very esoteric choices.”
“They’re all by predominantly artists of color, I noticed,” Gwen said. “Charles Brown, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye…”
“Which one is the Marvin Gaye song?” Dania asked. “Is it––”
“‘Purple Snowflakes,'” all three answered at once.
“Yep, that makes sense.”
“How did you know, Eleanor?” Gwen asked.
“It’s the only one that sounds even remotely like Marvin Gaye.”
“Yep,” Dania said. “Did he write that one that’s just piano, the slow one I don’t like?”
“What?” Gwen said, shocked. “You mean the slow one at the end of the album?”
“I think it’s in the middle somewhere. It’s not last.”
“This one?” Gwen selected the song.
I’m a thousand miles away / it’s not snowing in L.A.…
“No, no, that one is fine,” Dania said. “Also a little boring but fine. It’s the other one, the one that just sounds like he slapped the word ‘Christmas’ into the lyrics last minute.”
Dania hummed part of the song, a repetitive lyrical line that remained within one tight vocal octave.
“Oh, this one,” Gwen said, putting on “Waiting For Christmas,” a slim parlor tune wedged in between two of the better known tracks on the album.
“Yeah, that’s sort of slow and dull,” Dania said.
“Well, you need some variety,” Eleanor said.
Dania laughed. “Yeah, there’s plenty of variety here. Almost too much. You have to skip stuff based on your mood.”
“What do you mean?” Eleanor asked.
“You mentioned that it sounds like a John Legend album more than a Christmas album, and I’d think that’s about right,” Dania said. “But in fairness, it also sounds like basically every album. There’s the normal jazz songs, and the slow jams, and the piano covers, and that New Orleans style one at the very end, and whatever the crazy upbeat version of ‘Silver Bells’ classifies as…”
“I love that cover of ‘Silver Bells!'” Eleanor defended.
“It’s not bad, it’s just weird,” Dania said. “It’s a great Christmas album in the way that, like, a mixtape of all your favorite holiday songs is a great album. Everything feels like it’s from a different recording session.”
“I might argue that there is a stylistic through-line to the album,” Gwen said. “Something to tie everything together to Christmas. But you’re right, it’s very unbalanced.”
“Well, maybe I just like unbalanced,” Eleanor said. “A little variety. It’s still a great addition to the holiday tree decorating playlists.”
“Oh, by the by,” Dania added, suddenly. “When are we getting the tree for the apartment?”
“I think it’s folded in the closet,” Gwen said. “I just haven’t had time to pull it out.”
“I’m pulling it,” Dania said, crossing to the closet as Legend continued to croon. He continued throughout the afternoon, as Dania raised the tree by the window, decking it with an assortment of mismatched and personal bangles, each a herald of the season in their own way.
Image Source: The Met Philly