Celine Dion's These Are Special Times is Uneven yet Tough to Deny
by Kristin Battestella
The 1998, so multi-platinum its diamond hit These Are Special Times is the first English language holiday release from French Canadien star Celine Dion. Though at times lacking in spirit and its best seller mechanics are often apparent, Theses Are Special Times nonetheless packs a powerhouse as previously released Christmas singles join carol staples and new holiday compositions for over an hour of sentiment.
It's usually reserved for a big finale, but the lengthy O Holy Night opens These Are Special Times with soft, careful notes and choir echoes before going heavy with deep octaves indicative of the reverent weight meets stylized pop in operatic dressings found here. The nineties sounding bars of this original Don't Save it All for Christmas Day have since been covered elsewhere, but this power ballad orchestration is in top form thanks to backing chorus vocals with a gospel persuasion to match the wishful lyrics and rousing refrains. After starting with such heavyweights, Blue Christmas delivers a mellow pleasantness with jazzy and swanky but no less sorrowful notes. It might have been interesting to see These Are Special Times continue with this kind of adult sophistication for a quiet, intimate, relaxed holiday mood. The Bryan Adams composed Another Year Has Gone By, however, seems like a pop ballad one can hear any time of year, for the big notes and sentimental words feel surprisingly generic for a holiday release. Don't Save it All for Christmas Day already knocks the quest for a contemporary holiday classic out of the ballpark, yet the original compositions on These Are Special Times all feel like carefully orchestrated try hards desperate to become major hits. Previously a charity single duet, The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone) is indicative of this catchy, almost able to sing a long desire that somehow lacks the much needed jingle and jolly.
Thankfully, light echoes and soft humility begin Ave Maria, allowing time for the heavy breaths to increase alongside the rising crescendo reverence. Some of the exiting ad libs are unnecessary – certain carols should be left as is – but the trembling vocals remain powerful into Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful). Initially, Celine's solo versus in between the organ and orchestra swells jar as if they were recorded separately and merged later. However, the full on choir adds a fitting church spirit and the rousing invitational comes together for one big finish. These Are Special Times returns to the easier chic with The Christmas Song, a previous collaboration with Dion's longtime album producer David Foster rightfully included here thanks to a classy embrace of mellow lower notes amid the long-held and high-winded. It's okay to be quiet and effortless instead of constantly bombastic – especially on a Christmas album that needs tenderness as much as the awestruck. Just because Celine is one of the select few who can be constantly bombastic doesn't mean she always should. Fortunately, the original duet single The Prayer featuring Andrea Bocelli captures the best of both words with sentimental spirit and operatic power made even better with soulful Italian refrains. These lyrics are again not necessarily Christmas, however the inspiring high notes invoke an international, moving in itself peacefulness. Though a familiar melody, the previously released Brahm's Lullaby feels somewhat tacked on after the strength of The Prayer. It's not a short track, but the whispering mood and slightly different arrangement feels over just when your about to get into it.
Likewise, Christmas Eve is another new chance to rock out with its deliberately toe tapping beat and easy rhyming chorus. It's quite catchy in its particular nineties pop way – a welcome, happy break from the serious vocals and big religion. But built in December airplay safety or not, there's not much staying power when a song intentionally sounds like every other adult contemporary top forty hit. There really isn't anything wrong with it, yet the hollow, about nothing undercurrent remains. Something something mistletoe...something something Christmas...yadda yadda yadda. The lovely songwriting queen extraordinaire Diane Warren penned the titular These Are Special Times, and this regurgitated mellow for the sake of it, love for the season drippy makes the album itself feel more like a regular release rather than a holiday CD. Instead of going for broke with Celine singing all the carols the majority of lacking singers simply cannot, the carefully planned hits deviate from the December details for maximum mainstream reach. These Are Special Times would have been a much truer, complete concept had it consisted of all holiday classics and seasonal heavyweights. Surely the love songs shtick can be let alone for just one album? Despite a tinge of updated pop, Happy Xmas (War is Over) remains much more meaningful, as new heights make contemporary listeners stand up and take notice of this retro seasonal statement song. While not as good as the Lennon original, this bittersweet tune is an important reminder of December's unhappiness for so many.
The number one single duet with R. Kelly I'm Your Angel is the longest track on These Are Special Times. This is a great song – the kind you sing in the shower, play at weddings, and cry to in the car as you drive on a lonely dark night. It's the quintessential millennial sound, and yet...putting 'angel' in the title doesn't make it a Christmas song. I suspect part of the bestselling status enjoyed by These Are Special Times is due to people buying the CD to own the hit singles – as we had to do lo those twenty years ago – and not because such listeners were expressly looking to purchase a Christmas album. Yes, I feel a little stinky thinking that, but the obligatory fourth quarter capitalizing potluck of These Are Special Times defines our ever increasing meaningless holiday mentality. Luckily, Feliz Navidad adds some much needed December fun for all. The genuinely happy ad libbing and sing a long sound humanizes Celine's grand octaves just enough, and more lighthearted charm should have been peppered throughout These Are Special Times instead of saving the cheer for the encore or ditching half the jingle and jolly altogether for a conflicting presentation. Likewise, the short family coda Les Cloches du hameau has everyone joining in for some innocent tidings of the season. Even if you don't understand what the Dions are saying, the bells and shepherds swell with an old world fireside feeling – something the intended hits on These Are Special Times lack.
Naturally there are regional editions of These Are Special Times, bonus tracks, and companion DVD specials featuring the beloved Celine hits, live concert performances, and big guest stars. I like the video for It's All Coming Back to Me Now and of course The Bee Gees collaboration on Immortality, but I'm still so forever tired of My Heart Will Go On and Titanic. Many may love Celine Dion or hate her international romantic saccharin, however after thirty years strong on love songs and power ballads, you always know what she is going to deliver. These Are Special Times is one of the highest selling holiday albums of all time, but the uneven sense of I see what you did there production craftedness for the commercial season leaves the holiday bells and whistles beside the point. Whether it is the English calculation from a non-native romance language speaker or the old fashioned obligation to have a B side of religious songs, at times These Are Special Times doesn't feel like a Christmas CD but a Celine Dion album with carols on it. Unfamiliar new compositions make it tough to sing a long and the holiday focus wavers. Thankfully, the reverent powerhouse performances and hit holiday singles carry These Are Special Times. There's simply no denying Celine Dion's voice is meant for the sentimentality of the season, so pick and choose your favorites from These Are Special Times for a sophisticated holiday dinner party or a romantic December evening.