For an artist who's made a career out of subverting Christian imagery, Tori Amos comes off surprisingly reverent on Midwinter Graces, her first holiday album. The singer-songwriter is pictured on the cover art ascending into the clouds with arms outstretched, like Christ resurrected, but even this visual is tame in comparison to what she might have done 15 years ago. Her output this decade has ranged from utterly banal (The Beekeeper) to passable (this year's Abnormally Attracted to Sin), her incisive skewering of the religion of her youth decidedly a thing of the past. One could assemble the ultimate anti-Christmas EP with songs from Tori's back catalogue ("Crucify," "God," "Icicle," and "Father Lucifer" among them), but the artist who once wrote about masturbating while her family sang Christmas hymns downstairs, and how God might just need some good pussy, is shockingly docile here.
Midwinter is comprised of five secular originals and nine traditional holiday songs that have purportedly been given a new twist. On paper, the very idea should have had both Toriphiles and critics licking their lips, but aside from a hardly blasphemous pre-chorus ("Some say we have been in exile/What we need is solar fire") added to the Christmas carol "We Three Kings," re-titled "Star of Wonder," Tori doesn't really bring a whole lot to these classics lyrically. And only on the bonus track "Comfort and Joy," when she refers to the man behind the counter of a bagel café as if he's some exotic creature or muse, do we get a flash of the Tori we've come to know and love.
Midwinter fares better musically. "Harps of Gold" boasts the kind of '80s adult contemporary production that has marred Tori's post-Atlantic albums, but most of the other arrangements here capture the essence of the holiday season without becoming cloying or predictable. Lush strings, both live and synthesized (though you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference), are employed throughout, and John Philip Shenale's big-band arrangement gives "Pink and Glitter" a classic New Year's Eve air. It's "Winter's Carol," however, that's the standout track: The song's strong melody and arrangement are reminiscent of something from Under the Pink, bolstering a pagan yarn about the passing of the seasons. As a subversion of religious themes, Midwinter misses the mark entirely; as a traditional holiday album courtesy of one of Christianity's most astute pop-cultural critics, it's an ironic, pleasantly competent oddity.