The human dilemma has always been our innate sense of perfection combined with a vivid awareness of our distance from it: our knowledge of the fall from grace, to put it in the vernacular of this album’s topic. There are those for whom an analysis of the proximity to perfection only emphasizes the curse of our distance from it, and those for whom it emphasizes the blessing of our having a sense of perfection in the first place. I am in the latter category. I tend to notice what’s missing. I undertake a critical analysis of Christmas From the Heart also because it represents, according to all reports (including the liner notes from the singer himself), the closest we have yet gotten to who David Archuleta is as an artist and indeed as a person. If ever there was a moment to take him seriously, this is it.
Ships in the Night
The difficulty in trying to evaluate David’s work at this stage of his career is that he is not yet surrounded by talent that is equal to his own. The production people currently available to him are by no means slouches — Emanuel Kiriakou is a very successful (if not entirely distinguished) producer, for example — but neither are they of David’s caliber. This tends to result in either David sublimating his talents to the requirements of the producer (or the material), or in a disparity between performance and production.
There is obviously much to be happy about in Christmas From the Heart. David’s vocal work is remarkable in many ways, and the arrangements are certainly sumptuous and even inspired in touches. Kurt Bestor’s “Ave Maria” and “Pat-a-Pan” are clear standouts, and it’s great to hear David take on classic material and even a few charming lesser-known pieces. Most engaging, luminous even, is David’s overall approach to the material.
These are cherished songs for him, and in a stroke of genius that was undoubtedly instinctual, he treats them like love songs. I am reminded of the way people spoke and wrote about Anandamayi, the 20th century Indian mystic and spiritual teacher, a woman of intense beauty and great wisdom who devoted her life and energy to God. She is described as being in a constant love relationship with Him, and brought to the world a resplendent tenderness that touched everyone she encountered. I think David is in that same relationship. He treats the more religious songs like love songs because indeed they are love songs. Songs of the beloved One.
I only wish that a better understanding of what David was up to had been conveyed in the production that surrounds him. Even aside from the spiritual aspects, from a purely musical perspective David was obviously going for a great deal of intimacy and simplicity with his vocals. Why then, in the name of heaven, does virtually all the production work accomplish precisely the opposite effect? The enormously elaborate arrangements sound as if they were meant for the Metropolitan Opera House, while David is singing with a gentle tenderness like it’s him and the baby Jesus alone in a manger. Despite its many pleasures, the central problem with Christmas From the Heart (and it’s a big problem, at least for me) is that the approach of the artist and that of the production are at significant odds with one another. And the results compromise David not insubstantially.
Much of the album suffers from a heavy handedness that has the unfortunate effect of burying David’s incredibly nuanced vocals to all but those who really listen beyond the extravagant production. “Silent Night,” which contains some unique and really lovely arranging work by Richard Parkinson and Sam Cardon, is suffused with more orchestral gravitas than a James Cameron movie. “What Child Is This,” also arranged by Parkinson and Cardon, begins quite promisingly (if not at quite the degree of simplicity it might), and David does some of his best work here… the vocals are stirring, riveting… but then, with the orchestration at the second verse, it’s as if we’ve been thrust into a glider soaring over the Serengeti watching stampeding antelope while Meryl Streep delivers a eulogy.
I’m not suggesting that David’s voice can’t handle such extravagance, but when you’ve got the sophistication of an Archuleta vocal, especially one where the obvious intent is a close and personal communion of the spirit, it is a contemptible crime to drown it in layers of grandiosity.
And not even real grandiosity, mind you, but in most cases synthesized grandiosity (only Kurt Bestor’s few tracks contain a live orchestra recording, of the Prague Philharmonic). It is ironic that synthesizers replace a cost-prohibitive orchestra when the approach of the artist might have been better served by small group accompaniment, both affordable and real.
Follow the Voice
Let us consider for a moment two of the performances in the Archuleta canon that have galvanized audiences far beyond his core constituents: “Imagine” and “Contigo en la Distancia.” The common denominator of these two, apart from the fact that both were live rather than studio takes, is the accompaniment of what is essentially a single instrument (violins emerge toward the middle of “Imagine,” but with enormous restraint). David Archuleta’s voice has so much subtlety of expression that its impact is most intense when accompanied by smart, elegant arrangements, not a wall of sound better suited to the 360 voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Lest anyone think I am suggesting the extreme minimalism of, say, the lone guitar on “Contigo en la Distancia,” I don’t necessarily mean that at all. There are ways to incorporate meaningful orchestral accompaniment without having it feel like a sweeping movie soundtrack, a style that is just all wrong for this vocalist singing these songs in the way he chose to interpret them.
To all producers here and now and forever more who work with David Archuleta: Follow The Voice. Follow The Voice, follow The Voice, follow The Voice. Shall I say it again? Follow The Voice. David has, for the most part, unerring instincts regarding how his instrument best interprets material. My one and only equivocation in this has always been his tendency to leave a certain scope of dynamics outside the studio room door, relegated to the stage alone. This self-limitation has never been more in evidence than on Christmas From the Heart. Had he brought some of his stage-style energy to the vocals, the mismatch with the monumental arrangements might not have been so pronounced, but that would have been a case of the horse following the cart. I do think, however, that even on a production more complementary to David’s own quieter inclinations, that a few strategic moments would benefit thrillingly from his onstage power (my kingdom for a producer who can get that into the recording booth).
It’s hard to know how this profound disconnect might have come about. Perhaps David’s own producers failed to listen to him — not to what he says, but to how he sings. Had they listened — really listened — I can’t imagine they would have gilded the lily so strenuously. Perhaps they were showboating, or just lacking the necessary taste to pull off a level of sophistication that would have been more in keeping with David’s own work. It is even possible, I suppose, that it was David himself, whose well-known ambivalence about his skills and the sound of his own voice might have led to a desire to pile on the layers of orchestration… But when asked in a recent interview about the Utah contingent of producers on the album, he had this to say:
There were a lot of people in Utah who were passionate about the project and wanted to make sure the music told the story the best it could and had as much emotion.
Hmm. As we all know, David has a sense of respect and diplomacy that can render him speaking in a kind of code, such that in order to discern any real opinion one must undertake a fairly deep reading between the lines (a risky proposition, to be sure). To me, this comment conveys quite convincingly that the “emotion” supplied through the arrangements was in fact instigated by the producers, not by David. I won’t go so far as to suggest that I’m hearing, “It’s their fault!” here, but in a vocal arrangement the emotion is supplied not by the accompaniment but by the singer. The story is told in the voice, and the orchestration should be in service to the vocal, not the other way around. And while we are reading between the lines, we might consider the implications of this particular comment, in response to a question about the instrumentation that may be deployed for the tour:
I really feel like real instruments and the live feeling add so much to the music, and to those arrangements, especially.
I’m gonna go out on a limb, here, and interpret this as a thumbs-down from David on synthesized orchestras.
My personal grief is based around the disappointment of a missed opportunity. The material that comprises Christmas From the Heart was the ideal chance to allow David’s voice to shine with unequivocal splendor. Instead, the producers somehow got the idea that a canned version of an orchestra the size of Texas was needed for splendor. David is clearly the only one in the entire enterprise who realizes that bigger is not always better; everyone else needs to study the phrase, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” From a certain angle, it was a near miss. Had the delicate tenderness, the glowing intimacy, the evanescence of David’s beautiful vocal work been followed more closely, with more accuracy, more reverence, we may have had an album of true distinction; of real and lasting consequence. Alas.
But let me not leave the ardent fan with the impression that I think there is little here to enjoy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if “Pat-a-Pan” got radio play; the more secular numbers in general are lovely, and if one can listen past the production on the more spiritual songs, there are sublime rewards. Christmas From the Heart will undoubtedly live quite nicely in the holiday music collection, to be cherished among family traditions the way a treasured ornament brings a sentimental joy. But it might have been the star at the top of the tree.