By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Not if Mariah Carey has any say! Hopeless nostalgia is to Christmas what It's a Wonderful Life is to Christmastime programming, but on Mariah's second holiday album, Merry Christmas II You, she yearns for more than yuletides of old.
This sequel to 1994's Merry Christmas harks back to a more complicated time in Mariah's career. Opulently orchestrated with help from American Idol judge Randy Jackson and schmaltzmeister Marc Shaiman (who's partially responsible for Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," among other cinematic shlock), it recalls an era when genre lines were as ambiguous as Mariah's race, when her hitting as many target audiences as possible was the goal, when obsequiousness was the aesthetic. Post-hip-hop Mariah doing an overly lush album of Christmas standards is the musical equivalent of Todd Haynes's allegorically retro flick Far From Heaven. (She makes yuletide cheer gay, too, via the Salsoul Christmas Jollies–reminiscent "Here Comes Santa Claus/Rooftop Celebration" and a robotic house version of "Auld Lang Syne.")
II You is as hilarious as the stilted Douglas Sirk movies that Heaven aped, starting with a title fit for . . . a Mariah Carey album. (Why just have something announce itself as a sequel when it can be a tiding of joy, as well?) The biggest laugh comes via the smooth, 808-bumped epilogue to her piano-and-voice reading of "The First Noel": The "Born Is the King" interlude is pure baby-making music (apparently, even virgin birth is deserving of such). It's also one of several medleys on II You, as if Mariah is such a festive entity that she simply cannot sing just one Christmas song at a time. She treats carols like potato chips and chews the scenery, her voice manically fluttering from an even belt to a clenched strain to a creamy whisper. Sometimes, the latter's airiness sounds seasonal, and sometimes it sounds like a struggle. It's always appropriately melodramatic, though—the aforementioned "The First Noel" is the sound of an eye filling with tears that have not yet spilled.
Of the four Mariah-penned new tracks, the Jermaine Dupri/Bryan-Michael Cox collaboration "Oh Santa!" tries the hardest, an antique kitchen-sink replica that manages to invoke a cheerleading squad, the Pointer Sisters, Mariah's own "Loverboy," and "Hey Ya!" Full of mumbling and cattiness, it's difficult to sing along to, so its prospects of becoming a perennial favorite are dim. "When Christmas Comes" is a full-band Emancipation of Mimi retread, while "One Child" is a needless retelling of the night of Christ's birth with nothing new to add (no surprise, coming from a non-historian). The only track that approaches the magic of her previous hit "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is the exquisite "Christmas Time Is in the Air Again," a sweeping big-band ballad that you'd swear was a cover from some Judy Garland movie you didn't pay that much attention to once. Not even Santa himself has the power to conjure the spontaneous nostalgia found here.
"All I Want for Christmas Is You" appears here, too, actually, in a remastered, "Extra Festive" version. Think of it as the stereo component to the mono-sounding original—the new version cuts the reverb, softens the bell-ringing, and introduces a giant kick drum. Think of it also as Mariah canonizing herself by remaking her own song, deserved classic that it is. It's an eccentric move, and one that simultaneously caters to her ego and her audience. (You know your mom can't be bothered to switch CDs to hear the song she really wants, and, since she's part of a select group that's still buying them . . .) The near-crazed desperation to please listeners for her own sake is all over Merry Christmas II You: A "gift" to her fans (or so she claims) that they, of course, must pay for, it's her fascinating, career-long saga of self-obsession in a nutshell.