Reviewed by Johan Palme on 9th December, 2016
One of the fantastic things about that golden period in the early sixties, when so many of history’s great Christmas records were released, is that so many truly sophisticated artists were persuaded to record Christmas albums. Christmas, before and since considered simple, naive, old-fashioned, hokey or cynically commercial by fashionable tastemakers, suddenly could be cool. And to be cool in the early sixties was to be a sophisticate.
Of course, besides pure elegance, a sophisticate wants to be in the know. See the complexities, avoid the cliché. And so the realisation that Christmas was indeed naive and vulgar and hokey was incorporated into the cool. This was the era of camp – but Christmas can never be ironic. It craves and feeds on earnesty.
And so on the Christmas album by Peggy Lee – role model for Miss Piggy and the sophisticate’s sophisticate – you’ve got perhaps the ultimate, grown up, understated version of “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song”. But you’ve also got well-intentioned, solid songs for children, some even educational. Four new ones are written by Peggy Lee herself, who was an accomplished and skilled songwriter.
For an album of the era, an album in the know, it actually sort of works, however much it is quite literally an emotional Christmas carousel. But listening to it today, something still rings false. The best recording artists of the genre – your Doris Day, or June Christy, say – managed to combine beauty and maturity with a genuine sense of longing for childhood, all in the same song, readable on many levels. Peggy Lee, on her hand, attempts a split, and in the process the children’s songs, clinically scrubbed of subtext, end up feeling surprisingly fake. Somehow, in their unwinking earnesty, they become less earnest. Because you know just how much more the sophisticated Miss Peggy Lee can do.