I have this touched-in-the-head Facebook friend who celebrates Christmas three, maybe four, times a year—and no more emphatically than during the three months leading up to the real Christmas. As I write this, I see that he has gone ahead and trimmed a two-story tree while the rest of the country tricks and treats. I consider it a pointed gesture, an act of chronological elision of paganism from one of the few strident Christians I haven't blocked from my feed. (I've let him linger there because he is, after all, as nice to look at as a present wrapped in a ribbon with a bow on it.) My from-afar psychoanalysis of this Facebook friend is that Christmas is the time of year that most closely brings him—and, let's face it, many people who still celebrate, really celebrate, the holiday—back into the womb, back to a time in his life before education, career, and sexuality started messing all the simple pleasures up. Yuletide manifests itself as something more than mere nostalgia, more than just a moment of escapism and retreat from maturity.
Arriving just as ahead of schedule as my Facebook friend's Sasquatch-sized evergreen is Merry Christmas II You. And with it, Mariah Carey's trend toward regression reaches critical mass. So harmoniously did Carey's holiday cheer amalgamate with my own worst suspicions of said friend's psyche that it seemed a perfectly natural, terrifying spin this Halloween weekend. Everything about Carey's sequel to 1994's buoyant, if, in retrospect, safe, Merry Christmas is as desperate and habitual as it is reassuringly predictable. Aside from a few tracks co-produced by Jermaine Dupri, Carey's notions of what a holiday album is are exactly as they were 16 years ago. Ditch the hip-hop beats, heap on the figgy orchestral pudding. Pass those synthesizers to the left, gather around the brass section and the little drummer boy. Don't forget to pick out a good aluminum tree, Charlie Brown. Maybe painted pink. Even David LaChapelle's cover photo tips Carey's state of mind. Her minxy North Pole outfit, her Sears portrait pose, even the reasonably chaste smirk on her face are all reenactments of the '94 cover art. The only difference is that now Miss Santa is pleased to display where she's placed her extra padding.
And yet, with this incredibly adventureless album, I bet Mimi manages to assess and capitalize on her intended audience's wavelength in a way that most of her last decade's worth of albums couldn't. It is a remarkably comforting listen, and not only the reverent, explicitly Christian material like "O Holy Night" (a song which would seem to have been written for Carey's octave-scaling high notes, if they didn't want for something a bit meatier at the climax) and "The First Noel." Even the original material here is engineered to suggest the Ghosts of Christmas Past. James Poyser's R&B-lite "When Christmas Comes" is as fudgey-smooth as Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas." The Dupri-assisted "Housetop Celebration" component of "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" recycles the monolithic beat from Kurtis Blow's instructive "Christmas Rappin'." And "All I Want for Christmas Is You (Extra Festive)" sounds like another Christmas pop song that I can't quite put my finger on…maybe if I think about it for a minute or two. Regardless, Mariah belts it like she owns it.
By the time Carey sings the sad strains of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" and invites her mother Patricia Carey to duet with her on "O Come All Ye Faithful," it's all too clear that Merry Christmas II You isn't really a sequel at all. It's not even a remake. It's an attempted rewind. As such, it's probably one of the most revealing and none-too-flattering approximations of the mindset of a certain sort of adult's Christmas spirit.