Each year, I wait until the week prior to Thanksgiving to begin listening to Christmas music. I know that I won’t feel guilty for listening too early, and the delay of gratification is not deleterious to my experience of the holiday season. This year, a month before my season-opening date, Eric Clapton released his first-ever Christmas album, Happy Xmas, on Oct. 12.
We last heard from Clapton with his 2016 return to the country-blues arena with I Still Do, which received poor ratings from a number of publications as it failed to serve as a return to the 73-year-old guitarist’s “glory days.”
Clapton’s release of a Christmas album was a bit unexpected. Clapton has been relatively silent since a disappointing 2016, so the fact that his next attempt at a “return” would be through a Christmas album is, for his critics and listeners, out of left field.
Nonetheless, Clapton is a connoisseur of the blues, and I was interested to see what his take on a Christmas album would be. In short, Clapton combines Christmas classics with lesser-known Christmas-themed titles to compile a set of covers that (mechanically) work. Essentially, Happy Xmas is not going to drive Clapton back to the center of popular music, but it contains the pillars of Clapton’s craft — masterful blues guitar, soothing vocals and an absence of much editing — that make for a functional Eric Clapton album.
Each track from Happy Xmas is a cover, similar to the construction of the classic Christmas albums from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and so forth. However, Clapton intentionally included some lesser-known Christmas songs, such as “For Love on a Christmas Day,” and covers of Christmas pieces from Slade. As such, Clapton’s Christmas album covers a spectrum of sorts — he covers the classics while dusting off Christmas pieces from the bottom shelf.
Clapton covers this spectrum while maintaining a blues/country atmosphere to his renditions — except for one house rendition of “Jingle Bells” that would throw the uneducated listener off. “Jingle Bells” is situated between “Home for the Holidays” and “Christmas in My Hometown,” both of which are the more bluesy tracks on the album. “Jingle Bells,” however, is a house/EDM track — unheard of from an artist like Clapton. According to Clapton, the track serves to pay tribute to the late Avicii, with whom Clapton had worked on spotted occasions. Clapton’s outrageous venture from his typical low-key style will no doubt come as a surprise to most. In fact, when I first listened to the album, not only was I thrown off by the venture into EDM, but I was disappointed to be hearing EDM while I was trying to listen to a blues Christmas album. That said, upon my research of the album, I was glad to discover that “Jingle Bells” is not Clapton’s attempt to get into the house/EDM game and rather a tribute to one of the genre’s greats.
Clapton’s Christmas album feels like a reflection on what is important to him, musically and personally. In an interview released on Clapton’s YouTube channel upon the album’s release, he said that the album “has taken a lifetime of Christmas experience and (listening to) Christmas music.” It is not difficult to feel that “lifetime of Christmas experience” baked into the Happy Xmas album.
The mistake that Clapton’s critics make, in 2016 with I Still Do and likely in 2018 with Happy Xmas, is the erroneous assumption that Clapton is trying to get back to his “glory days” or back into the popular music arena.
With no slight to the legendary musician, both I Still Do and Happy Xmas are examples of Clapton’s new career outlook: Clapton is making music for himself and his team, and whether his listeners enjoy the music is not his top concern.
The album’s cover art was done by Clapton himself, mimicking Bob Dylan’s artistry for Music from Big Pink. Clapton’s rough illustration of Santa Claus on a white background sets the tone for the album. The rough-around-the-edges (literally) album art further symbolizes the notion that Clapton’s new music is homemade, made for himself, made for the joy that is making music, occasionally made for his long-standing fans.