Reviewed by Johan Palme on 28th December, 2019
To some extent, nearly all of the classic Tin Pan Alley Christmas songs are about escape. Some are very explicit: “White Christmas” dreams about being up north, away from California; “I’ll be home for Christmas” is a soldier’s fantasy about home; the original, real version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” has the distant goal of Christmas as something to distantly look forward to. Other songs are less openly about dreaming yourself away, but present idealised Christmases where people sing carols in choirs, roast chestnuts over open fires or ride sleighs through wintry fairy lands. Ultimately, it may be too much of an escape. Sometimes, these fantasies hide how those of us without sleighs, which I assume is the majority, actually experience the holiday.
Once I Dreamed of Christmas by Nashville-based country-folk singer Otis Gibbs is an antithesis to all that, despite what the title might suggest. The songs, even the most fantastical ones, are filled with literary, realistic detail, evoking not a fantasy Christmas but everyday lives with a great deal of humour, both warm and dark. The titular character in opener “Lloyd the Reindeer” is a former merchant marine working security at a beach grill bar, who gets in a drunken knife fight with Santa Claus. It’s whimsical, but the world it’s set in rings true with just a few strokes of the songwriting pen.
Many of the songs are highly realistic depictions of people, often on the margins of society. Single mothers working double jobs whose Christmas takes on a deeper meaning, sceptical neighbours encountering a surprisingly dishevelled Santa… It’s a different kind of magic to the Tin Pan Alley escapes, one where the real world intrudes – but what a magical world that too can be in the right hands. Otis Gibbs gives it exactly the care it needs.
It is common for albums that get digital re-releases to add a couple of bonus tracks, but strangely the version released to streaming services cuts out two tracks from the original CD release instead, “Cowboy’s Christmas” and “Jesus on the Couch”. These are, to the best of my knowledge, only available on that CD.