Leona Lewis: Christmas, With Love – review

Why do people still bother with Christmas albums? Leona Lewis's is far from the worst, but it needn't worry Slade

This week, it was reported that Noddy Holder and Jim Lea are set to make £800,000 in royalties this festive season. With a fortnight still to go before Christmas itself, one website claimed – unverifiably – that Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody has already earned its writers £512,000. In fairness, it's not as if anyone's really tried to knock Merry Xmas Everybody from its perch in the national affections recently. You'd think the potential to earn nearly a million quid a year from one song would send pop writers scuttling off en masse to try to dream up a new Christmas single to rival it, but no one in Britain seems to bother. The traditional explanation is that Christmas singles are too naff for latterday artists to countenance: they're a relic of a less sophisticated era, when Christmas day meant turkey washed down with liebfraumilch, the family boggling in wonder as the Pong machine got hooked up to the telly, and dad emerging from the bathroom bearing the startling olfactory hallmarks of a Brut gift set applied with abandon. The truth may be that no one dares, cowed by the way that Christmas hits of the 70s and 80s are so deeply embedded in the nation's psyche that challenging their supremacy seems a futile kamikaze mission, like forming a band with the intention of being bigger than the Beatles.

But while the Christmas single is a dying art, you can't move for Christmas albums these days. Perhaps they're easier to make because they don't come freighted with the same historical weight. There are dozens of celebrated Christmas singles, all of them wheeled out on an annual basis, but only one truly legendary Christmas album: A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, released on the day John F Kennedy was shot. No one expects them to get to No 1, or to become a beloved national institution, or indeed be anything other than a hastily constructed cash-in, designed to make a quick buck then be swiftly forgotten.

It's tempting to suggest that makes them the kind of album that fits perfectly with Simon Cowell's worldview, which might explain why so many artists associated with him seem to end up recording them. This year alone, Susan Boyle is duking it out in the charts with Britain's Got Talent runners-up Richard and Adam and Leona Lewis's Christmas With Love. Perhaps understandably, given that it's working in a genre where the biggest record of the year is 40 years old, the latter plays up the retro angle. It arrives in a 60s pastiche sleeve, bearing a version of White Christmas with an arrangement apparently based on that of Mud's 1974 chart-topper Lonely This Christmas, and two painstaking recreations of tracks from A Christmas Gift for You. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and Winter Wonderland differ from Phil Spector's versions only in so far as the original vocalist, Darlene Love, was a singer of the 60s R&B tradition, in which one conveyed emotion by exercising a degree of restraint, even when belting it out in order to be heard amid one of the Tycoon of Teen's kitchen-sink arrangements. Lewis is a singer who graduated from The X Factor, and thus conveys emotion by leaping between octaves, embellishing every other word with a melismatic flourish, standing on her head and tearing telephone directories in half.

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If the Spector recreations are tinged with a sense of pointlessness, the three original tracks are actually quite good. Your Halleujah is a spectral ballad, co-written by Lewis herself, that seems to be about that perennial topic of Yuletide jollity, someone dying at Christmas. The more upbeat One More Sleep and Mr Right are really enjoyable, particularly the latter. It's a little brazen in its attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You – perhaps the last Christmas single to genuinely capture the mass imagination in the manner of Slade et al – but as its writers would doubtless point out, Christmas is no time for subtlety.

Elsewhere, it's hard to really go wrong with a song like Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, although the team behind the album give it their best shot, rendering the opening verse as a piano-backed ballad, the better for Lewis to stand on her head and tear telephone directories in half over. Her voice sounds infinitely more impressive on Silent Night. The question of whether the world really needs another version of Silent Night hangs heavy over it, but you have to be thankful that Lewis reins her performance in a bit. This, after all, is a song both Destiny's Child and Mariah Carey have used as a springboard for double back somersault vocal extemporisations so florid they leave you thinking that if a carol singer came to your door and performed Silent Night like that, you'd pretend to be out.

You could say Lewis's entry into the Christmas market smacks of keenness to regain lost ground. The kind of people who bought her debut were apparently baffled by the incomprehensible experimentation of 2012's Glassheart, which contained a mild dubstep influence on a couple of tracks. Perhaps they'll be won back en masse by undemanding festive cheer? It seems more likely that Christmas With Love will sell moderately well, get played in the background at a few parties and slip in one ear and out the other without leaving much lasting trace, as is the way with your average Christmas album. There are certainly worse Christmas albums out there than this. Equally certainly, there's nothing here to challenge Noddy's supremacy at the top of the tree.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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