Cliff Reminds us of the Heart of Christmas

Cliff begins his new Christmas album with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – something he should know about, as it’s been peak sales time for him since the ‘80s.

The superb “Little Town” scratched at the door of the top ten; “Mistletoe and Wine”, “Saviour’s Day” and “Millennium Prayer” all topped the chart; “21st Century Christmas” missed that spot by only one place; and “Whenever God Shines his Light” – a duet with Van Morrison – made the top 20.

“Mistletoe and Wine” has been re-issued several times (and released in German) and still made it into the lower reaches of the UK singles chart (no. 81) the fourth time around.

While it may be one of his cheesier hits, it began life with attitude. It was originally written for the musical Scraps, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl. In its stage version, it is an ironic pastiche of a carol, sung while the poor match girl is kicked out into the snow by heartless middle classes. In its TV version, it was a hearty pub song, sung by the local prostitute, played by Twiggy.

Sir Cliff tweaked the lyrics to reflect more of the heart of Christmas, declining any writing credits along the way.

This song’s history seems to parallel Cliff’s career. It’s hard to believe now that he began life as an almost dangerous act, but he soon became ‘safe’, with his own BBC show at family viewing time and Eurovision success. Along the way, he has been known as one of the most famous British Christians, and taken that ambassadorial role seriously.

Named with all the imagination of an algorithm, the new album Christmas with Cliff has all these same elements from the breadth of his career: some old-time rock ‘n’ roll, some schmaltz and some faith.

When I saw the tracklist, my heart sank, as it features the kitsch that sullies the whole genre of Christmas music. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the aforementioned opener and “Jingle Bell Rock” are unlikely to get pulses racing. Surely he can do better than this?

And he does. The retro fare might draw in those opting for a hearty-fire-and-robins Christmas mood, but he then exposes them to what Christmas is really all about. He does it gently, with familiar songs like “When a Child is Born” – and this is a superb version. He tweaks the spoken word section, emboldening its tone. It’s a difficult part to pull off without sounding corny, but Cliff gives it a sizeable dollop of personal authority.

Building on this is perhaps the highlight of the album. He sings “Mary, Did You Know” with huge passion and a dash of wonder, as he describes features of Jesus’ life that would have amazed Mary at the birth time, had she understood fully just how world-changing this event was.

It’s songs like this that show why Cliff has been such a popular singer. There’s an airiness to his voice, and he can wring every gram of expression out of songs, when he wants to. Despite Cliff’s voice sounding distinctly lower on this album, he reaches the high note in “Mary, Did You Know” with confidence.

One disappointment in some of these faith-based songs, it is that they can sound surprisingly downbeat –especially after the trite-but-merry “ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-dong-dings” of “Sleigh Ride”. “Joy to the World” starts at a funereal pace before eventually starting to sound a bit joyful. “Go Tell it on the Mountain” is gospel-lite, played with the genre’s distinctive keys style and choir, but is hardly the full-throated gospel that speeds the pulse. Neither does “O Come, Let us Adore Him” reach its exultant potential.

The record label proposed the album, asking him to choose from a selection of the standard fare, and Sir Cliff asked for three new tracks of his own – a wish they granted.

“First Christmas” is an easy-flowing track – a typical Cliff song – that lists the gifts given to the Christ-child with a reminder:

 “We give gifts to friends and family / We receive them too
But don’t forget that Jesus is the greatest gift to you.”

“Six days After Christmas” is a strong, warmballad that leads us into New Year. Other than a vague shared experience, it doesn’t say much, but it sails along very pleasantly.

The third is another radio-friendly highlight, “The Heart of Christmas,” which builds to a highly catchy chorus. Sir Cliff continues to emphasise the point of Christmas music as he sings:

“Holy, holy, holy night /Hear the angels singing out,
‘Unto us a child is born / Jesus, the heart of Christmas’.”

There’s some tongue-in-cheek, self-referencing humour in the production. Twice in “Sleigh Ride,” we get the two-bar introduction to his “Congratulations” hit cheekily popping up, and a similar nod to “We Don’t Talk Anymore” appears during “Jingle Bell Rock”. And while he generally puts a Cliff stamp on the songs, he a deliberately impersonates Elvis on the delightfully twangy “Blue Christmas.”

I think the only two original rock ‘n’ roll pioneers still regularly recording are Dion and Cliff, and both boldly share their faith in their music. Dion deservedly gets the critical acclaim and duets with megastars for his recent blues work, but Sir Cliff has the popular vote. His last album earned him yet another record:  the first artist ever to score a Top 5 album in 8 consecutive decades. This one could be another – after all, it is that wonderful time of the year…

Original blog post, commissioned and edited by Premier Christianity here.

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