“Labor of Love”

I refer, of course, to the Isaacs’ Christmas song that seems to have some folks all twitterpated, and given all the raving about it, I was ready to be gobsmacked. But I’ve now listened to it a coupla of times and I’m mostly sorta … meh … about it.

I wrote this and a version of the rest of this post earlier this week and sent it down to the interns for processing, only for it to be sent back with an insolent note: are you trying to fulfill the stereotype of Avery as a curmudgeonly hater who just hangs around the music to diss it?

This seemed like a fair point worth cogitating on for a few days, not least of all because I really and truly wanted to be blown away by the song and thought maybe I had just approached “Labor” with the wrong mindset or something the first time, maybe hadn’t  really heard what others were hearing. So I listened to it a few more times and put on my best frame of musical mind and thought about it some more and hoped for the spirit to move and … well … still meh.

Musically it’s pretty unremarkable, meandering around melodically for most of the verses and then using a fairly pedestrian set of musical thoughts in the chorus that I suspect most people would forget if it weren’t for the Isaacs’ transformative way with harmonies.

That, and the fact that Mark Lowry has been praising the song, which no doubt has distorted the feedback loop, not only because of Lowry’s considerable Gaither acclaim but also in this case because of his having co-written what has pretty much become the Christian equivalent of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: “Mary Did You Know.”

As with “Mary,” it seems to be the lyrics of “Labor” that most people have in mind when they speak of what they like about the song. And certainly there is an earnestness of imagery in play here surpassing that of anything I can recall hearing in a Christmas tune. Thus the first verse:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyway that night
On the streets of David’s town.
And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
Little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold.

It was a labor of love, of course, and etc. I take this cinema verite rendering of the nativity scene as part of the song’s attempt to humanize the Christmas story in – quite literally – warmblooded terms. The lyrics’ insistence on the unseemliness of it all (the blood, the unhygienic setting, the cold and the loneliness) would seem to be implicitly taking aim at the plastic idealizations of the crèche that dominate commercialized, Christmastime accounts of the birth of Christ. And I wonder if it isn’t this implied but discernible critique of mainstream secular Christmas culture that a lot of folks are responding to at some level in the song: a kinder, gentler cri de coeur about keeping Christ in Christmas.

And why not? At $1.29 on iTunes, “Labor of Love” is a lot better KCIC value than the empty symbolism of a Jesus is the Reason for the Season car magnet, with the added bonus that the song doesn’t generate nearly as much cognitive dissonance as typically wafts off the debates about the secularized monetization of Christmas that always seem to play out in profit-taking contexts like cable news, talk radio, and websites festooned with ads for this or that trinkety holiday Christmas gift. As if (with apologies to Wordsworth) laying waste our powers in the sordid boon of getting and spending is somehow less soul-wasting if we gild consumption in the tinselly talk of keeping faith with the gifts of the magi to the Christ child.

(Money where my mouth is digression: Avery HQ hasn’t purchased Christmas gifts for the past several years and instead has made contributions to the ministries and/or charitable organizations of our friends’ and families’ choosing, and have asked friends and family to do the same on our behalf … here is one of our favorite local charities and here’s one from back home in St. Louis … feel free to give as the spirit leads).

Anyway. For me, a song about the bloody birth of an illegitimate child in a filthy stable leaves me as cold as the song’s cobblestones, however technically accurate all this may be from the biblical literalist’s reading of the Christmas story. Even in the context of a super-sentimental genre like southern gospel,* the song seems to rely disproportionately on a maudlin scene of sentimentalized human woe to illustrate a divine truth. But then again I’m not the target audience here either, and I might react differently if I were to hear it live.

*I realize this is not exclusively a sg song, as some of you are pointing out in comments.  My point is that within sg, the threshold of sentiment is above average and even by that standard, the song still pushes the limits of sentimentalization.

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  1. RDB wrote:

    Hey, it’s me again!

    If I’m not mistaken, this is written by Andrew Peterson a CCM artist of some artistic merit. Actually calling him CCM is somewhat misleading as his music tends to be pretty stripped down and laid-back - hard to categorize but certainly not mainstream pop. His wordsmithing tends to be better than his melodizing, which may be why I’m less enamored with him than some. In all fairness though I think you have to rate him a quality singer-songwriter by most standards.

    I’ve not heard the Isaacs rendition of this song but I have heard Randy Travis sing it. I don’t recall being blown away by it myself - it’s fairly wordy and the song never really finds its core or its hook. I don’t know if it was meant to. Anyway it’s interesting that the Isaacs cut it. Considering that its a relatively new Christmas song that doesn’t stink or that you don’t instantly forget completely, it would presumably be a candidate to get recorded some more here and there. I don’t think it would stand up to the exposure Mary, Did You Know has received (I think Buddy Greene deserves a li’l more credit for that one - it wasn’t all Mark Lowry, folks) just because it doesn’t quite have the hook.

  2. quartet-man wrote:

    I haven’t heard that song, but am curious about your thoughts on the Oak Ridge Boys’ song “My Son”. It is best heard live with Bonsall’s emotive delivery, but still….

  3. quartet-man wrote:

    Emotive delivery? I got a touch of Averyitis for a second. ;)_

  4. cynical one wrote:

    This is not just a sg song. It’s been recorded by Randy Travis, Point of Grace, and I’m sure several others. I kinda like it.

  5. Janet B wrote:

    As I’ve said before, I haven’t heard the Isaacs’ version yet, so I can’t speak to that.
    However, I first heard this song 5 or 6 years ago. We were at a Christmas pageant, of sorts, and a young woman came out & sang it. I don’t even remember her singing it, exactly - it was the lyric that grabbed me. I love inspired lyrics - and this has them in abundance.
    Just the same as with Easter - we love the END of the story…but we gloss over the difficult parts before that. Yes - we know that Mary was very young…that she & Joseph had to travel very far to Bethlehem…that there was no room for them at the inn…that Jesus was born in a stable (more correctly, a cave). We love the parts about the angels singing…the shepherds’ awe…the visit of the Magi. Glory to God in the highest! Peace and goodwill to men! Alleluia!
    However…to fully appreciate the miracle, you have to understand the struggle it took to get there. That’s the message of this song: Rewind the tape. There’s more to this story. Certainly, it was a holy, memorable, & miraculous night. But it wasn’t silent. Or pretty. Or easy.
    I think the fact that Mary & Joseph have been tagged with the “saints” label has dehumanized them. They were just ordinary people - kids, really - who allowed themselves to become part of an extraordinary situation. They held on with faith & the knowledge that “the Baby in her womb, He was the Maker of the moon, and the Author of the faith…”

    So, Doug - if you don’t like it, then you don’t like it. Personal preference. I wish, though, that you would be touched by the raw humanity in its message (which is definitely not sentimental) - and let it warm your heart.

  6. DMP wrote:

    I had the same reaction. I heard so much about it, then listened to it and though…huh. Not the moment I was expecting… Good, just not earth shattering.

  7. Irishlad wrote:

    Okey then,Labor of Love :Issacs were good, Point of Grace better,the sound on Randy Travis was poor so i can’t comment,but for me on sheer acoustic brilliance Jill Phillips takes the prize.

  8. wanderer wrote:

    #2 Quartetman
    I like my My Son by the Oaks. But I have always seen it as more of an Easter Song than a Christmas song. Joe does a good job, but again, I think it would come off better with the right female singer.

    Sometimes when the world is going on and on about how great a song is, it raises your expectations to a point where you get disapointed when you hear it yourself. It has happened to me several times. One of the reasons I don’t pay a lot of attention to reviews anymore.

  9. judi wrote:

    Thanks for joining the Advent Conspiracy and mentioning charitable gifts for Christmas. And thanks for linking to each of them. You can make ours the second one.

  10. quartet-man wrote:

    #8 Yeah, I have used it at church as an Easter song. I brought it up here because it was on the Oaks Inconvenient Christmas CD. I agree with you in part that a woman would be more fitting (the line “My name is Mary” and such), but Joe does such a great job at catching the emotion I can live with a man singing it. Gary Morris actually sang it first).

    In fact, when I used it at church, I had a woman sing it (she actually sang it in the same key as an A is about as high as she can comfortably go and she can the C that is needed). One time I used it for a custom Easter cantata I put together, and the second I had her do it on Good Friday a few years later.

  11. Mark wrote:

    “Joseph,” recorded by Jason Crabb on his “Because It’s Christmas” CD (and written by Don Poythress and Tony Wood), rises far above “Labor of Love,” IMO.

  12. Baritone77 wrote:

    As mentioned above, Andrew Petersen wrote “Labor of Love”. Andrew’s about as close to mainstream CCM as BFA or EHSS, meaning he’s not. His closest styling would be folk.

    That being said to get the full effect of “Labor of Love” you need to listen to the entire CD that it originally came from, “Behold the Lamb”. It tells the story of the birth of Christ


    There is a video of Jill Phillips singing it on the Behold the Lamb tour.

    I’m underwhelmed by both Randy Travis’ and Becky Isaacs’ versions of the song compared to the original. It’s nice to see the Isaacs cover it though.

  13. Alan wrote:

    I listen to all new Christmas songs through a filter of this question: a hundred years from now, could this be a “standard”? And, “Labor of Love”, to me, joins almost every single new Christmas song that I’ve heard… my answer is probably not. I think you have to separate secular from spiritual Christmas songs, of course, and this song as well as “My Son”, “There’s A New Kid In Town”, etc., are in the spiritual category. Compared with “Oh Holy Night”, “Silent Night”, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and the like, these don’t come close to the old, tried and true standards, imo. And to me, there’s the #1 reason why one Christmas album after another continue to include the same old standards. And, I never tire of them.

  14. Lynn Black wrote:

    This song to me is brilliant. I cry everytime I hear it. It brings what is probably more real truth about the birth of Christ than all the romantic pictures that have been painted. I love it and I love the Isaacs! And the rest of the their new Christmas CD is really good as well.

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