Best-known outside her native Sweden for winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1991, one of the schlager pop scene's most enduring female artists has steadily built up an impressive portfolio of festive albums in her 30-year career. Following 1991's Jul, 1999's Jul I Betlehem, and 2007's I Denna Natt Blir Varlden Ny, Christmas in Bethlehem is her fourth yuletide release, but her first to be recorded entirely in English. Those who are only familiar with her more bombastic, campy, Euro-pop material will be surprised to hear that the 15-track collection is an unexpectedly restrained affair, which for once allows her beautifully fragile vocals to come to the forefront. Avoiding the straightforward karaoke route, Christmas in Bethlehem instead offers an eclectic, globe-trotting vibe which makes several songs thousands of years old seem fresh and contemporary. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is given a stunning Middle Eastern makeover thanks to its authentic Indian instrumentation and the haunting vocal tones of Iranian Mahsa Vahdat and Azerbaijani Aygun Beyler; the English and Latin vocals on "O, Sanctissima" are accompanied by infectious African tribal beats and uplifting gospel chanting, and the twanging guitars, subtle organs, and shuffling rhythms of "Poor Little Jesus" turn the Christian hymn into an authentic slice of 1930s-influenced Deep South blues. Elsewhere, "Silent Night" is a bizarrely engaging duet with the husky-voiced Hans-Erik Dyvik Husby, formerly the lead singer of Norwegian death-punk outfit Turbonegro; "The Little Drummer Boy" is an impressively soulful take on the Harry Simeone Chorale classic, while Britain's Got Talent winner Paul Potts pops up on a powerful and emotive rendition of "O Holy Night." In addition to the more familiar standards, there are also four original compositions co-penned by Carola, including "Heaven in My Arms," a faithful English-language reworking of her melancholic, wintry "Himlen I Min Famn," the epic "Find My Way to Bethlehem" which begins as a somber acoustic ballad and ends in a crescendo of anthemic rock guitars and swirling orchestral production, and "Heaven Turned Out to Be a Child," an enchanting but slightly sinister, violin-led, neo-classical piece featuring young schoolboy Julian Erlandsson, which would make the ideal opening theme should Tim Burton make a sequel to The Nightmare Before Christmas. While many holiday albums sound like they've been knocked out in a day, it's clear that Carola's invested as much effort in Christmas in Bethlehem as she has with her trademark pop material, and in the process, has produced the most heart-warming and timeless album of her career.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien