Reviewed by Johan Palme on 19th December, 2015
Pianist Oscar Levant once famously quipped that he “knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” It’s certainly an unpleasantly sexist comment from an age where women’s sexuality was tightly monitored, but it gets at one essential quality that Doris Day truly excelled at: the ability to very precisely control her expression, to suggest and produce very different modes. It’s no wonder that her singing career was soon joined by an even more successful acting career; she has an actor’s precise control and economy of gesture, a genius way of sketching emotion through just a few turns of phrase.
And in many ways, her Christmas album is the place where this comes to its most complete statement. All its tracks are stone-set classics, covered by dozens and dozens of other artists, and yet she manages to make them fresh by very slowly, very deliberately, delivering every syllable in a voice that constantly and subtly shifts from despair to sensuality. In a career of playing that innocent “virgin” role, this is Doris Day stepping out fully adult, an adult who’s acutely aware of precisely the loss of innocence and mourns it. It shows in something as simple as song choice: she may be the first artist since Judy Garland herself to sing the despondent original version of the lyrics of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” – there is no “shining star” here.
And then there’s album high point “Toyland”, in its original a wistful but mostly joyous song about a magical kingdom. Here, without changing a word, Doris Day makes it utterly a song about loss, about years that “go swiftly by”, about how the promises of childhood are gone, replaced by a longing for something which can never be recaptured. In other words, it’s a song that knows exactly what Christmas is about.
The collection that exists online contains a large set of extra tracks, which in this case seem a shame to let go of because they’re good, too. But nevertheless, the Spotify version here links to the original track order as a playlist, and on Amazon and iTunes you can strike out tracks 3, 6, 11 and 14-16 to get the original.