The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait is, far and away, without a doubt, quite simply the greatest Christmas album ever recorded. Perhaps you prefer competing entries by Frank Sinatra or Vince Guaraldi or Louis Armstrong; none of these totems, wonderful though they may be, can hold a candle to Christmas Portrait, because Karen Carpenter was born to sing Christmas songs. Sure, you grumble, of course Karen Carpenter could sing a damn Christmas song, the Carpenters were schlocky as hell. Know that suspending your cynicism comes with a reward, and that reward is an entire tradition of holiday music as American as rock & roll. I’ve been playing Christmas Portrait all throughout this holiday season and suggest you do the same.
The original Christmas Portrait was released in 1978, during Karen Carpenter’s lifetime, but the classic version is the 1984 reissue, which combines tracks from the 1978 album and 1984’s An Old-Fashioned Christmas into an extended holiday suite. An Old-Fashioned Christmas was Richard Carpenter’s baby — after Karen’s death from anorexia in 1983, he recorded a new set of orchestral pieces and distributed them around various outtakes from the 1978 album, and released the end result as a sort of posthumous memorial to his sister. The reissue (which will henceforth be referred to merely as Christmas Portrait) resequenced songs from both albums and came out shortly after An Old-Fashioned Christmas, hence also functioning as a memorial, only a more powerful one because it featured more songs with Karen on them. Maybe when these songs were recorded Karen and Richard were having innocent fun, earnestly celebrating the spirit of Christmas, churning out holiday product because that’s what soft-rock mall-music titans do. Thus repackaged and recontextualized, the shadow of death hangs over the whole album. Every time she goes home for the holidays, every time she swoons over Jesus Christ in the manger, every time it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you, you can’t help but think: she’ll never take a sleigh ride again.
In “Perfect is Dead: Karen Carpenter, Theodor Adorno, and the Radio; or, If Hooks Could Kill”, a paper presented at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference and later compiled in Pop! When the World Falls Apart (2012, edited by Eric Weisbard), CUNY English/Comp Lit professor Eric Lott argues that the music of the Carpenters (their non-holiday music, that is) articulates a dialectic between Karen’s unhappiness and the bland, tinklyshit studio craft of the music, which latter stands in for the material fulfillment, naïve good cheer, and crippling social constriction of Los Angeles, where they worked. Indeed, Karen often sounds morose, alienated; even when she’s singing about how she threw her sadness away, only yesterday, her warm, stretchy, languid contralto conveys a sense of critical distance from the material. Always she teeters on the edge of nostalgic sentimentality without toppling over, so that sudden peaks of overwhelming and startling emotion shoot up through her silky, velvet, deadpan vocal shawl when you least expect it. But unlike the Beach Boys (or the Eagles), in retrospect there’s nothing California-specific about the Carpenters — while Richard’s meticulously composed baroque-pop arrangements may have originated in the ‘70s Los Angeles soft-rock scene, by now they’ve been accepted as the gold standard for classic adult contemporary Muzak the whole world over, so that the dialectic pits Karen’s melancholy not against California as metaphorical utopia but against all of American popular romantic sentiment, against kitsch itself. While associated with the worst tendencies of heartwarming, feelgood corporate product, in fact this music expresses a profound discomfort with said tendencies, which doesn’t prevent it from longing after cozy absolute fulfillment or milking its own schmaltz power anyway — these fantasies are so disappointing precisely because they are so enticing, and songs like “Goodbye to Love” and “Yesterday Once More” and “I Believe You” acknowledge both sides of this coin. The greatest hits compilation Singles 1969-1981, released posthumously in 2000, stands as the finest album-length representation of this ethos, stringing together an endless panoply of kitsch/antikitsch masterpieces into a seamless pop whole, and it’s the album novices should start with. But Christmas Portrait could give it a run for its money.
From the opening a cappella harmonies on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Christmas Portrait displays a sense of command so expert, so masterful, it seems to unify the entire Christmas tradition. Karen sings various Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and the like while Richard incorporates her songs into a sumptuous orchestral suite that includes religious hymns, children’s songs, and excerpts from The Nutcracker in a sweeping summation of Christmas past and future. The arrangements are rich, imaginative, full of constantly shifting surprises — over a bedrock of strings and hushed horns, bells and flutes ripple and flutter and pierce, electric Wurlitzer pitterpatters away, church organ suffuses the whole thing with divine glow, backup singers add requisite angelic harmony — forming a lively, organic, classical-derived studio concoction that’s in no way fussy or stale. Karen’s singing brings out all the innate joy in, say, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” lingering over the most sublime portions of the melody, savoring all the sugar hidden in those vowels before they leave her mouth; often Richard will scatter assorted backup singers around her to create a cozy sense of community. Check how in the eternally eager “Sleigh Ride,” the whole family gathers ‘round during the bridge — grandmother telling us there’s a Christmas party at the home of Farmer Gray, grandfather exclaiming it’ll be the perfect ending for a perfect day, and so on, until Karen herself utters the final line (and this must be the ghastliest and most brilliant line in any Christmas song): “These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives,” after which the string section resumes frolicking in the snow. Check how Richard’s various interludes move from one familiar melody to another without ever losing stride, as when the epic “March of the Toys” rises up exuberantly from “The First Noël” or when he glues together three pieces from The Nutcracker that weren’t sequenced as such in Tchaikovsky’s score. The album even has something resembling a narrative structure. First, a long overture with anonymous, overdubbed choral singers sets the stage. Then, Karen finally appears eleven minutes in to sing happy, celebratory songs anticipating the magic day. Then, after their classic original “Merry Christmas Darling,” shades of melancholy begin to creep in. Then, her pain comes to a head during the tortured, harrowing “Little Altar Boy.” Then, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silent Night” end the album on an appropriately peaceful note, as if to say her pain has been resolved, only in real life she starved herself to death. How heartwarming.
Perhaps true believers would argue that Karen finds redemption in the final two songs, maybe even redemption in the form of Jesus Christ, but I don’t think so. They’re just there for formal closure, part of the same fantasy that’s depressing her. Most Christmas albums are totally pro forma, empty covers of the same old songs that the radio always plays, designed as filler product and/or a way for singers to prove how classy they are without actually saying anything of substance. Christmas Portrait, by contrast, just does what the Carpenters always do, at a greater level of specificity. Karen’s voice, a voice so honeyed and polished the tiniest crack can send cataclysmic fissures splintering off in every direction, utterly transforms what’s usually an innocent, celebratory tradition. In her hands, with Richard’s studio expertise adding crucial antithesis, Christmas becomes a metaphor for total happiness even more powerful than California itself. It’s that perfect day at the end of the year when you can ignore all your real-life problems and just bask in the holiday cheer, a break from the cold outside world when you can just curl up in a blanket by the fire and hide from your pain, when you can go home for the holidays. You wait for it all year, looking forward to the rosy glow it’ll cast on the year’s end and the promise of a new one. But when you wait and wait and that kind of happiness never comes, when your pain never goes away, when you don’t go home, that redemptive promise begins sounding more and more like a lie. It’s that disappointment that drives Karen to the heights of agony she reaches in “Little Altar Boy,” begging the eponymous altar boy to pray for her because she envies his innocence, because she has nobody else to turn to, because she’s desperate. “I have gone astray,” she pleads, and for once that phrase sounds not like religious cliché but a genuine confession of personal failure. Afterwards she’s calmer, but even so she’s coming home for Christmas “only in [her] dreams,” and when the album closes with “Silent Night” it offers only a return to the fantasy. The result is a Christmas album that, while certainly celebrating its tradition, also demonstrates the limitations of that tradition, chillingly. I play it not to get misty-eyed over the holiday season but to keep my fucking eyes open.
Christmas Portrait presents a vision of the holidays that’s simultaneously rosy and dystopic, in which pleasure (courtesy of Richard’s music) and pain (courtesy of Karen’s singing) coexist and neither wins out. Just because the fantasy lets us down hardly means we should condemn it outright — it can still be wonderful, and that’s why the Carpenters made a Christmas album in the first place. But ultimately it is deceptive, and the distance in her voice conveys that. Christmas Portrait is a major statement by major artists who did more than anyone to plumb the depths of the American popular romantic heart, portraying a struggle with the seductive promises of kitsch far more universal than the content of the kitsch itself. It reveals the nightmare within the holiday and celebrates it anyway.
So enjoy the holiday season, even if enjoying it is hard sometimes. Karen Carpenter would want you to.
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