Salvation Is Created
By Ryan Hamm
December 1, 2009
Christmas music is some of my favorite music.
There. I said it.
People are surprised to hear this from me. Maybe because my tastes tend to veer more toward the indie (read: the latest band from Brooklyn), hip-hop and, well ... sort of the anti-kitsch. I don't have much time for manufactured feeling, and I'll be the first to hop on a bandwagon and make fun of someone for liking a band we all got over in high school (we're all over Goo Goo Dolls now, right? OK, good).
But for some reason ... when it comes to Christmas music, there's just not much I can make fun of. My friends berate me for accepting carefully constructed nostalgia, but I eat it up. A new Frank Sinatra Christmas album? Yes, please. What's that? A deluxe edition of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack? Put it on the Christmas list. Starbucks' latest compilation of Christmas tunes, some of which I already have? Add it to my order, please.
I think the reason I enjoy this particular season's music so much is because it's essentially a microcosm of the reason I enjoy the season itself. Christmas is one of those rare times when the deeply spiritual and the absurdly kitschy take a place beside one another ... and neither leaves the worse for wear. The sacred and secular lie down with the lion and the lamb, and an average Christmas mix can contain everything from "Silent Night" to the weirdly creepy "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
And I love a good secular Christmas tune, particularly if it's jazzy and/or one of the members of the Rat Pack is involved. But ...
When I look into the wintry darkness of Christmas (what Over the Rhine rightly referred to as "the darkest night of the year"), in my innermost being, I want to be reminded why all of this exists in the first place. When I feel most filled with "holiday spirit," it's when I'm driving by myself across the plains states, with Sufjan or Rosie Thomas singing Yuletide favorites on my stereo. Or when I'm talking with a friend on a cold winter night while Over the Rhine plays in the background. Something that reminds me Christ came and it's just as mysterious as you'd think God being born as a baby would be.
It's this kind of Christmas music you'll find on Salvation Is Created: A Christmas Record by Bifrost Arts. Bifrost Arts is a name given to the production team of Isaac Wardell and Mason Neely. They released the incredible compilation of hymns and spiritual songs called Come, O Spirit!, which featured people like the Welcome Wagon, Rosie Thomas, David Bazan, Damien Jurado and a member of Fleet Foxes. Bifrost Arts has released both albums on Great Comfort Records, a label started by members of the fabled Danielson Famile.
Salvation Is Created is a worship album in the guise of a Christmas album. It's filled with ramshackle sounds, creaking instruments, and a collective strain of vocals striving to honor God and the little baby He sent to Bethlehem. There isn't as much star power on this album as on the previous release; the biggest name here is Derek Webb. But the album certainly doesn't suffer for that fact. Each artist is clearly giving it their all. The album is beautifully lush and orchestrated with appropriate drone, swells of orchestral strings, stirring piano and, of course, passionate vocals.
You probably won't have heard many of these songs—I hadn't. There's the normal "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," but there are also standouts like "Joy Joy!!!" (featuring Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri) that builds upon a circular melody of clarinet, piano and a foreboding woodwinds section. Ben + Vesper (former collaborators with Sufjan Stevens) offer a lilting melodic take on "Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella." And the final song, "Salvation is Created" (feat. Aimee Wilson), is an epic track of worship that wouldn't be out of place on a Sigur Ros album.
And, actually, worship is a good way to describe this album. It's easy to picture the participants gathered around a rickety piano somewhere and singing their hearts out to God, celebrating His Incarnation. Elin K. Smith's rendition of "Let All Mortal Flesh" is quiet and contemplative, inviting us to worship God in Communion, reminding us how He came to earth. "Veiled in Darkness" (yet another song with the melody of "Greensleeves") puts the mystery of the birth of Christ at the forefront.
Salvation Is Created is one of the most beautiful Christmas albums you could buy this season. It doesn't manufacture nostalgia or (something much, much more insidious) manufacture a fleeting feeling of "worship." Instead, it feels organic and authentic—a true expression of people expressing wonder and gratitude at the reality—and yes, the mystery—of Christ's Incarnation.