“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from her new album A Winter Gathering marks the first release from singer/songwriter Shauna Burns since her recent re-envisioning of the traditional folk stalwart “Scarborough Fair” and another high point in an increasingly impressive career. Burns is a couple of years now into the second decade of her recording career and comparing the artistry of this Yuletide themed cover to the inspired energy and lyricism of her 2005 debut is a study in an artist’s evolution. Her ability to bring a vision of traditional music falling more and more by the wayside with each passing year into accord with a modern sheen and a definite personality of its own. Burns, in both her original material and outside songs like this, thoroughly inhabits a lyric. Even the somewhat dated and formal language of this song is no challenge for her and she manages to convey its poetic, devotional quality with atmospheric phrasing and a sense of awe in her voice.
She really does make this song her own. This isn’t quite as secular of a song as one might expect in these days, but Burns’ treatment of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” doesn’t expend much effort, if any, deferring to the religious wording in the lyrics. Instead, Burns’ musical imagination and singing alike are focused on inspiring listeners with a more general sense of wonder about how meaningful this time of the year can be for many and achieves that goal with substance and style alike. The song is musically guided by some beautifully phrased piano lines and they reach for a grandiloquence of expression that they grasp early on and never release. Burns is accompanied, as well, by some light percussion and violin that rises and falls in the mix. The latter instrument takes on a secondary role during the verses, but it certainly competes with the piano for lyricism during the instrumental breaks. Running at four minutes forty five seconds, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” definitely gives Burns and her creative partners a little room to stretch out musically and they do so in a way that will captivate many.
The lyrical content is a little removed from our usual experience in modern popular music. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is certainly a time-honored spiritual long connected with the Christmas season, but it doesn’t enjoy the same level of familiarity other songs are distinguished for. It doesn’t matter to Burns. She delivers the song with a fierce passion reflected in the versatility of her voice and, by track’s end, has fully brought the listener into the song’s experience. Shauna Burns’ interpretation of this track has the sort of quality we expect from artists with an eye to posterity – sure, they want to entertain, but recording artists this caliber also hope to make music that you’ll keep coming back to for a long time to come. She’s accomplished just that with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.