“This is winter’s gift,” coos Tori Amos over harpsichord and piano on “What Child Nowell,” the inviting opening track to her determinedly non-denominational “seasonal” album Midwinter Graces. Following Abnormally Attracted to Sin, this is the second release this year from the musician who must surely rank as one of the hardest working (and most underrated) in the industry. Even so, this project may seem something of an unlikely one for Amos. This is, after all, the woman whose songs have variously speculated on God’s need of a girlfriend (“God”), recalled masturbation upstairs during prayers downstairs (“Icicle”), suggested Jesus was a woman (“Muhammad My Friend”) and appropriated the motif of crucifixion as an analogy for self-abnegation (“Crucify”). Few contemporary artists have made religion as central to their work as Amos has, and it’s precisely for those reasons that a seasonal album from her makes such good sense. Her Native American ancestry and her rebellion against aspects of her “Christianization” have always been focal points of her music, and have turned her into an open, willing student of many different belief systems and practices. (Then there are the memorable covers of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that she put out in the 90s). Unsurprisingly, then, Midwinter Graces approaches the genre with a mostly winning mixture of reverence and irreverence, transforming the Christmas album into the solstice album, adapting and amalgamating classic carols, and featuring a few Amos originals (which are, for me, among the highlights of the work). Always alert to the patriarchal manipulations of Christian doctrine, Amos’s focus here turns out to be the rebirth of light - the sun as much as the son - and she thereby turns Midwinter Graces into an inclusive experience that, nonetheless, should not offend traditionalists. (“I’m a big fan of Jesus,” Amos reminds us on the DVD interview, in a tone that suggests she could just as easily be talking about Robert Plant.) Difficult tightropes to walk, these, but Amos - a glorious walking contradiction herself - has pulled it off pretty well.
Musically, the album is a fairly rich experience. With Amos on keyboard duties (of course) and her usual cohorts (Matt Chamberlain: drums; Jon Evans: bass, MacAladdin: guitars; John Phillip Shenale: string arrangements) backing her, the overall sound is at once classical and fresh. Highlights include the medievally-tinged “Candle: Coventry Carol” and the evocative “Holly and the Ivy”/“Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” amalgam “Holly, Ivy, and Rose” (with effective cameos from Amos niece and daughter respectively). Of the originals, the playful big-band number “Pink and Glitter” sparkles, the lovely “Snow Angel” has both sweetness and sweep, and the stunning, dramatic “Winter’s Carol” (from The Light Princess) bodes very well indeed for the forthcoming musical. Amos elegantly and understatedly injects a healthy does of anima into each of these songs - and, indeed, into the Christmas story. The two piano-only bonus tracks - in particular an inspired reinvention of “Comfort and Joy” - are also worthwhile.
Nonetheless, the subversiveness of Midwinter Graces is evident more at the level of concept and lyrics than interpretation. Amos’s singing is fairly restrained throughout; she’s described the album - rightly - as the first record of hers in which there is “no anger in the work,” and it’s hard not to conclude that this has resulted in a limitation in her vocal approaches, one’s that’s particularly apparent for an artist best defined by her exhilarating ability to swing between emotions and moods. Midwinter Graces simply does not afford her that opportunity, and, conveying wonderment, Amos sometimes ends up sounding merely twee. (Worst offenders: the schmaltzy “A Silent Night With You” and the rather clunky closer “Our New Year,” which is also too close in content to The Beekeeper’s more elegant “Toast”). But like all of Amos’s albums, Midwinter Graces ultimately repays the quality of attention that the listener is willing to give it. The record is not an Amos classic, by any means. But as “winter’s gifts” go, it’s not a bad one.