Christmas isn’t for sissies. Sure, there are memories of stockings hung by the chimney with care and trimming the tree, but there are also unfortunate sweaters, unspoken decades of familial tension, and enough liquor to render the day an inescapable minefield.
As evidenced by his tour de force in Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton more than understands the pathos inherent in the holidays. He gives this understanding musical voice on Christmas Cheer, a rollicking collection of Christmas tunes that pack the punch of double-spiked eggnog. Billy Bob and his ace backing band, the Boxmasters, balance the darker moments with just the right amount of the wistfulness to make us all think that this year won’t be such a huge fiasco.
On Christmas Cheer, in the tradition of great holiday collections by Elvis, Bing Crosby and the Muppets, Thornton selects songs that play to his strengths, which are mainly honky tonkin’ and sounding vaguely pissed off. The two original songs on the album, “My Dreams of Christmas” and “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” explore this theme from the Yuletide perspective. Thornton gamely delivers the stories of prisoners and poor folks, sounding as if he was beamed from the Great Depression. Both tunes sound as if they too are covers, fitting in seamlessly with the John Prine chestnut “Christmas in Prison” and the topical (and more depressing for it) Happy X-Mas (War Is Over). Thornton is even able to stand toe to toe with the king on a subtle rendition of “Blue Christmas.”
For all the doom-and-gloom posturing, however, perhaps the best moments on Christmas Cheer are the more straightforward Christmas numbers. Delivered with the Boxmasters’ funky sound, “We Three Kings,” “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells” lose a lot of their inherent corniness. Maybe the real message here is that Christmas doesn’t have to be such a bummer after all. God bless us every one.