This year has provided no shortage of fresh Christmas music, among them a new holiday record from Steven Curtis Chapman. His CCM career is a long and respected legacy, long enough to already have two Christmas records to his name. But unlike the quiet, almost somber acoustic sound of the first seasonal release The Music of Christmas, his latest work Joy is bright and fun and certainly lives up to its name.
Joy is composed of six new original Christmas songs and a number of classics, arranged with a mix of his familiar acoustic pop and some fun 50's throwback styling. And as the title would suggest, joy is infused throughout the thirteen tracks. The mood is set from the start with his version of "Joy to the World." Flourishes of mandolin and big bright sound give it the vibe of some of his biggest hits, building to a big finish with an African children's choir and the proclamation "sing for joy from the tops of the mountains / sing for joy from the dark valley floor." The vibrant opener reveals from the start this album's greatest strength: it celebrates beauty in the darkest places.
When it comes to classic Christmas songs, it seems there are only so many ways to approach them. Chapman doesn't do anything radically different with holiday staples like "Do You Hear What I Hear," "Let it Snow," and "What Child is This," but the simplicity and personality of his arrangements make them uniquely his, whether working in the realm of radio-friendly pop, vintage swing, or jangly acoustic folk. One notable moment is a beautiful and somewhat somber take on "We Three Kings." Chapman's reverent version includes all the verses to tell the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The originals range from the fun to the reflective. The lighthearted "Christmas Time Again" and "Christmas Kiss" especially evoke the nostalgic sound of some of the most beloved Christmas classics. While these make for fun party songs, "Christmas Card" is one of the most meaningful moments on the record, a gentle acknowledgment of the pain so often accompanying Christmas for many people. The warmth and compassion in Chapman's delivery combined with the refrain "sending you this Christmas card to let you know somebody loves you," is sincere and comforting, a lovely counterpoint to the joyous songs that doesn't feel needlessly heavy or sentimental.
Another fine moment comes from "Happy New Year." It's a short closer, only coming to slightly over 2 minutes, but it brings the story full circle. Backed by just a gentle piano, this song can carry beyond the Christmas season, closing the album with the words, "The God who made everything is remaking everything," the true heart of the Christmas story.
For the most part, this is an accessible, fairly standard Christmas album, but it is also a fun and well-made collection of songs and makes a fine addition to Chapman's catalog. Reflective in the right places, yet lighthearted and fun where it counts, Joy sounds both fresh and traditional, and uniquely Steven Curtis Chapman. This is a cheerful addition to the holiday playlist and worth checking out this Christmas season.
- Review date: 12/21/12, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com