"Snowed In" and "Finally It's Christmas" make it easy to appreciate the band's musical strengths.
How do you follow up a million-selling single and a platinum album? If you’re Hanson, with a Christmas album. In 1997, “MMMBop” made them pop and MTV superstars, and the album it came from—Middle of Nowhere—produced three more hits, though none as big or memorable as “MMMBop.”
Hanson’s “Wintry Mix” tour plays The Fillmore on Tuesday night, and the show features new songs written for their next album and songs from both of their Christmas albums, Snowed In from 1997 and Finally It’s Christmas from 2017. According to Isaac Hanson, Snowed In was the label’s idea and between the speed with which the album followed Middle of Nowhere and the idea of hustling out a seasonal, novelty project, you get a hint of what kind of future the band’s label envisioned for three teenaged brothers from Oklahoma, the youngest of which was 13 at the time.
Hanson wasn’t sold on the idea at first, but they came around to embrace it. It wasn’t the follow-up they envisioned, but they saw the album as a way to show that they weren’t themselves novelties. They embraced Snowed In as a way to show that Hanson had roots.
“[The album] felt like something we could make our own and that we could own confidently and say, This is us. This is who we are,” Isaac says. “It definitely represented to us the idea that These are our influences. This is a record dedicated to our influences.”
I’m not sure that the audience took that away from Snowed In or if Hanson’s roots were a question people needed answered, but there’s a lot to hear on the album. The optimism and enthusiasm that was part of Middle of Nowhere’s charm is present on Snowed In, and their spin on the Christmas canon is built on the kind of excitement that only young people who see an boundless future in front of them with the skills to make it happen can generate. They don’t sound soulful, but they recorded genuinely imaginative versions of Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” as if the songs were made for and by while middle American teenagers. The brothers’ musicality jumps off the CD, but they remain focused on the season and never forget the context for the songs and album. It sold 1.2 million copies in America in 1997 and 2 million worldwide.
Little about Hanson’s release strategy came from the hitmaker playbook. They followed Snowed In in 1998 with 3 Car Garage, a reissue of their pre-Mercury and Polygram indie recordings, and Live from Albertane, which recapped the previous successes but in front of a live audience. By the time they released This Time Around in 2000, the pop world had moved on to ’NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees. Hanson didn’t go away, but it seemed like it. Island Def Jam consumed the band’s label and that led to a stalemate as their A&R man at the new label didn’t hear how the songs the band had written fit into the marketplace. The documentary Strong Enough to Break presents that conflict as the brothers endlessly wrote and demoed songs with different producers that they were enthusiastic about, only to find that he still didn’t get it. It took four years and leaving Island Def Jam and launching their own indie label 3 CG Records to get Underneath on the stands in 2004.
In a sense, the A&R guy was right. As their choices of songs for Snowed In showed, Hanson’s roots were in a more classic era of popular music, and it’s both funny and painful in Strong Enough to Break to hear them craft really good pop song after really good pop song that were largely out of vogue when Hanson broke in the ’90s and had absolutely lost currency in an era when everything on the charts had R&B and hip-hop roots. “Finally It’s Christmas,” the title track from their 2017 Christmas album, has the relentless catchiness of The Beatles-influenced ‘70s pop band The Raspberries, whose songs “Go All the Way,” “Let’s Pretend,” “I Wanna Be with You” and “Overnight Sensation” threw inventive passage after inventive passage so that the songs surprise as frequently and as joyfully as they catch. “Finally It’s Christmas” adds a level of conceptual continuity as they drive it with an enthusiasm that mimics the excitement the holiday inspires.
Since the experiences depicted in Strong Enough to Break, Hanson has been on its own label and its own values drive the recordings. The thing the documentary makes clear is that even when they weren’t making the best choices, they were making choices for musical reasons. On Finally It’s Christmas, Isaac sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at the bottom of his range. It’s a choice based not on fan service or market analysis but on the way he heard the song.
“For me, it’s all about the vocal,” he says. “It’s all about being emotional and being honest. That’s one of my favorite lead vocals that I’ve ever done. There’s a moment in every single take of that I song where I got choked up.” Because the brothers agreed that the song is the lead vocal, they fell in line with the traditional versions that came before and pushed the vocal out front while the band provided atmosphere. “It felt original for us.”
They approach playing canonical Christmas songs with the same musical sense that they bring to the songs they write. They filtered Brian Wilson-like harmonies into the second half of the verse of the Motown classic “Someday at Christmas,” and by doing so added a moment of difference to a passage in the song that repeats what came before it. To sing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” they added a gospel-influenced break.
“That song doesn’t have much percussion in it, and not many rhythm tracks in the original,” Hanson says. They were also working on a version of “Up on the Rooftop” based on The Jackson 5’s recording, and while they were thinking about Motown, they had an idea for “Wonderful Christmastime.”
“What if we take a Paul McCartney song and put it in a Motown context? It gives the melody a different opportunity to shine because the rhythm is so constant.”
They did think twice about revising a writer of Paul McCartney’s stature, but the musical questions won the day. “Once we added the rhythm, it needed another lift,” Isaac says. “It needed another chorus. As an artist, you have to be willing to break it to make it your own. You have to have enough self-awareness to say, Okay, I can’t do it the way they did it because I’m not them. How do I make it my own without hurting it.” Besides, they had already had experience with rewriting the masters when they took similar but less dramatic liberties with Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me” on Snowed In.
Before The British Invasion changed the pop music world, Christmas albums acted like vacations from an artist’s career—moments when they stepped out of the image they spent most of the year constructing to connect to their fans in a more direct way, meeting them over a shared love of the holiday season. Inadvertently, those records became some of the most enduring albums of artists’ from that era’s catalogues. Who in 2019 knows of albums by Perry Como, Andy Williams and Bing Crosby other than their Christmas albums? Snowed In wasn’t the band’s idea, but Isaac Hanson recognizes that it made an impact on the band’s career.
“There’s a reason to listen to it every year,” he says. It has become part of fans’ Christmas holiday traditions in the same way that a Rhino Records’ collection of rock ’n’ roll Christmas songs is a tradition with his family. “That’s also the only time of the year when it’s cool to listen to our own music. The kids really like it. My five-year-old daughter was three when Finally It’s Christmas came out, and she listened to that album constantly until my wife said, We have to stop. But it’s funny that our own music is creeping into our family tradition, in part because of the Christmas music element. I think it resonates with the fan base the same way. And honestly, I really like those records. As the artist, I’m really proud of those record. They’re fun to make and fun to listen to. I find myself going, Hey man, not too shabby.”
To hear my interview with Isaac Hanson, check out the episode below of our Christmas music podcast, The 12 Songs of Christmas.