The back catalogue of Christmas classics doesn’t want for plaintive, depressing yuletide tunes fit to have you hanging yourself from the highest bow, so the prospect of beholding busted angel Mary J. Blige dusting herself off upon a midnight clear actually held more promise than almost any other holiday album in recent memory. For those who bask in the bittersweet undertones of the wintry season, who better than Blige to dig deep into the endless pit of despair that is her diaphragm and wail “Please Come Home for Christmas”? Why not let Blige show Mariah Carey how Vince Guaraldi’s doleful “Christmastime Is Here” should really be covered? And how about putting a cherry on top of the fallen figgy pudding with a rendition of Amy Grant’s pleading “Breath of Heaven,” a song so full of expressive nakedness you’d think Grant had Blige in mind, and not the mother of Jesus, when she subtitled it “(Mary’s Song).”
But that’s evidently not the route pillow-top producer David Foster wanted to take, which was probably to be expected given the decision to name this set A Mary Christmas, even though no other vocalist having her name interchanged with “merry” would seem more wildly inappropriate. Brief enough to only get you through two batches of cookies, A Mary Christmas is an undeniably listenable but sadly too-safe hodgepodge of department-store standards, kid-friendly showtunes given glockenspiel-enriched arrangements to seem more festive, and one or two white-elephant gifts from out of leftfield. Very few tracks deliver the emotional climax listeners expect from both Blige and Christmas music in general; virtually none offer even the illegitimate charm of some of Carey’s more fanciful candy-cane ditties. (One solitary exception: Blige’s campy duet with Jessie J., “Do You Hear What I Hear?” If you’re asking if I hear one of pop music’s most unpleasantly affected voices yelping away as though in an attempt to clear away the mucus-laced residue of too much eggnog, Mary, then yes, yes I do hear what you hear.) For God’s sake, a cover of “The Christmas Shoes” would’ve played to Blige’s strengths more acutely than “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which she delivers against a driving big-band chart as though auditioning for an Ella Fitzgerald biopic.
Furthermore, the spectacle of hearing Blige pah-rum-pum-pum-pum-ing her way through the 12 Days of Prozac wouldn’t be so depressing (in the bad way) if the album at least reveled in the spirit of invention that graced the loopiest moments of Cee Lo’s Magic Moment, even more conspicuous as Blige lifted more than just a couple of song selections from that album’s tracklist, including such usual suspects as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” both of which Blige performs with a mix of reverence and reflex. Track after track—“The First Noel,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night” (in Spanish via Marc Anthony)—aim for an unequivocal comfort zone, which in Blige’s world may as well be uncanny valley.