Appearing two months after his much-hyped pop crossover move In the Life of Chris Gaines, Garth Brooks & the Magic of Christmas suffers from extraordinarily bad timing. When it was being recorded as the soundtrack for a television special, Chris Gaines had yet to be unveiled and, if anything had gone according to plan, The Magic of Christmas would have been the cherry on the top of a successful year for Brooks. Even the best-laid plans have a way of unravelling, however, and none unravelled more spectacularly than Brooks' hopes for the fourth quarter of 1999. It's likely that The Magic of Christmas was intended to reveal another layer of Brooks' musical talents, to complement Chris Gaines' mainstream pop by illustrating that Brooks can also sing Christmas standards like a big band crooner. That's right -- The Magic is another stylistic departure for the most popular country artist of all time -- this one finds him doing big band, swing, ballads, and even gospel. Certainly, he had to find a way to distinguish this album from 1992's Beyond the Season, especially since it shares a handful of songs with the previous holiday affair. Traditional pop may not have been the wise way to go, however. On paper, it's a bold, gutsy move, but the artist just doesn't have the voice to pull it off. Throughout the record, he's entirely too self-conscious, trying to keep the twang out of his voice while struggling to adhere to the textbook image of a classic pop crooner. His voice is way too flat for this predictable setting. In order to make such chestnuts as "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland," and "Sleigh Ride" sound fresh, particularly when they're given such predictable, brassy, post-Don Costas arrangements, a singer has to be both powerful and filled with charisma. Brooks is neither -- swallowed up by his big band, he sounds meek on each track, no matter how hard he tries to make himself heard. An interesting stylistic experiment, perhaps, but one that doesn't work. Unfortunately, The Magic of Christmas appeared just weeks after another interesting stylstic experiment from Brooks, the instantly legendary Chris Gaines. Musically, Gaines worked, but Brooks' invention of a fictional alter-ego was just too plain weird for his entire audience. Usually, Brooks records went platinum within two weeks of their release dates; two months after its release, In the Life of Chris Gaines didn't even go gold. Clearly, this was not the time for yet another stylistic departure, even if it was in the guise of a holiday album, but Brooks and Capitol had already locked themselves into a November release for The Magic of Christmas, and they couldn't stop it. To make matters worse, the TV special for The Magic wasn't completed in time, so it was bumped to Christmas 2000, leaving the album stranded in 1999. To save face, Brooks and Capitol decided to have the original release of The Magic of Christmas be a "Christmas 1999 -- First Edition" limited edition, planning to reissue the album with a different cover in 2000, when the TV special actually aired. That still doesn't explain the bizarre cover shot of a possibly airbrushed Brooks, dressed in black and sucking in his cheeks, standing beneath a spooky moon, holding a crystal ball, staring demonically into the camera -- it gives the impression that the album celebrates the black magic of Christmas. The picture doesn't ease the suspicions raised by Chris Gaines: the feeling that Brooks is retreating into his own insular world. From any other artist, such a wildly divergent sequence of albums would be seen as an attempt to alienate his audience, but Garth isn't Bob Dylan, who has been known to go out of his way to irritate his dedicated followers. Brooks wants to be all things to all people, but he not only can't pull everything off, he doesn't have an audience that will follow all of his detours. Consequently, the further away he goes from his standard sound, the smaller his audience becomes, and the more fascinating his recordings become. And, truth be told, few pairs of albums from a superstar have been quite so bizarrely fascinating as Chris Gaines and The Magic of Christmas.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine