It may seem rather perverse to write about a Christmas album in January. But then Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night… isn’t really a Christmas album; it’s more properly described as a record for - and about - winter, a "seasonal" record, if you will, along the same lines as Tori Amos’s Midwinter Graces. Sting’s approach to the material is less radical than Amos’s subtly feminist/revisionist methodology, but his considered, well-researched mixing of carols, folk songs, poems and original material turns the album into a similarly powerful artistic statement. So these two records, even though they only include one of the same songs (the 15th century German carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”), have come to feel like companion pieces to me over the couple of months that I’ve been listening to them.
I also wanted to say a few words about If On A Winter’s Night... because the album has, for the most part, been so horribly and unfairly reviewed. Dave Simpson, in a ludicrous short critique in The Guardian, calls the record “expertly made” … and proceeds to give it one star. Clearly it’s not considered cool to praise a Sting album these days - and maybe ’twas ever thus.
Well, to appropriate a particularly unpleasant Americanism: “Fuck that shit.”
I liked If On A Winter’s Night ... pretty well the first time I heard it and, again like Midwinter Graces, it has only grown in stature with each play. (How many listens our friend from The Guardian gave it is uncertain. But since he mistakes the sound of trumpet for a saxophone in the second song, the answer would appear to be: “Not quite enough.”) Sting’s choice of material - elaborated in detailed and informative liner notes - is inspired, and the musicians he’s collaborated with - including Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, percussionist Bijan Chemirani and cellist Vincent Ségal - give the album a textured but never overly dense sound.
The album comes out folk (the bearded Sting even resembles Martin Simpson a little), with classical and world touches, and its nuanced arrangements constantly yield up fresh details. I'm particularly taken by the haunting opener “Gabriel’s Message,” the driving “Soul Cake,” the dramatic rendering of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Christmas At Sea,” the understated reading of the venerable “Cherry Tree Carol” and the evocative, rather Joni Mitchell-ish original “The Hounds of Winter.” There are awkward moments: the album’s dabbles with Purcell - on “Cold Song” and “Now Winter Comes Slowly” - are a little lugubrious. But this is a thoroughly engaging record, dark, contemplative and soulful, on which Sting’s voice, sounding particularly deep and rich, warms the listener.