Prime Cuts: My Heart is Bethlehem, Do Not Be Afraid, Let Us Be
Vocally John Berry is in a class of his own. Unlike many of his peers, John Berry has an operatic resonance in his voice that calls to mind Gary Morris. Yet, he doesn't sound aloof or far too classical. His ability to inflect his vocals to reflect the emotional nuances of his songs makes him contemporary and palatable. Thus, since the early 90s, Berry could score hits that truly set him apart from all the emerging hat wearing neo-traditionalist then. For over a decade, he did serenade us with moving ballads such as "Your Love Amazes Me, "Your One and Only," "What's in It for Me" as well as more upbeat burners like "She's Taken a Shine" and "I Think About It All the Time." Even after Berry's tenure as a radio darling has expired, Berry continues to carry his soulful vocals over a couple of live albums and even a Gospel album under the Daywind imprint.
All of these experiences has equipped Berry to handle a larger swath of material cross-pollinating over several genres. This is most evident in Berry's latest release, the innocuously titled "Christmas." This is by no means Berry's first festive release. While he was still with Capitol/Patriot Records, he cut "O Holy Night" and later he self-released three more Yuletide projects. "Christmas" is therefore Berry's fifth Christmas release to date. For an artist who only has 10 studio non-festive albums, 5 Christmas releases is mammoth; to say that Berry loves Christmas music is an understatement.
Nevertheless, "Christmas" is the best out of Berry's festive cannon. Part of the reason that led to such favouritism is that the songs here are all top drawer material. Relative to other Christmas releases, the quota of originals is higher. Only 4 out of the 10 tracks are covers. Even with the covers, they are magnificently chosen. This is because Berry knows how to play on his own strength. Josh Groban's "You Raised Me Up," Mark Lowry's "Mary, Did You Know," and "O Holy Night" all require that full-bodied gusto of a voice to carry, a trait that is native to Berry. As for the originals, they are jaw-dropping gorgeous. "Let Us Be" shows us that Berry's time spent in Gospel music was not in vain. A worship song addressed to God; worship leaders will do well to include this track as part of their Sunday worship set list.
"My Heart is Bethlehem" is this album's trophy song. The opening words are pulverizing: "Eternity stepped into time, and drew a mortal breath." The incarnation has never been more eloquently put. In fact, every line of this prayerful ballad is twitter worthy. Continuing in the same power-balladry direction is "Do Not Afraid." This time the narrative of Christ birth is brought alive with 3-dimensional vividness, thanks to Berry's passionate delivery. "I Don't Want to Rush This Christmas" excels not with volume but with its rustic and relaxing ambiance, elements so appropriate as far as the theme of the song goes.
The songs on this record are so good that it's an album that one will visit each and every Christmas to come. Powerful, sensitive, moving, and even worshipful on so many fronts, what would do you want?