One of the hardest qualities to bring to Christmas music is seriousness. During a holiday that is associated with smiling faces, happy memories, and all things “JOY!,” it’s hard to not only capture the sombre reality of life outside of all this merriment, but also to create something people want to bother listening to come the festive season. The only reason Band Aid 20 made such an impression on the charts is because if you spoke out against it at the time you were considered a soulless prick (along with the fact it was plastered across almost every media outlet). The Pogues and Kirsty McColl, on the other hand, got the art down in one timeless track, crooning of the tumultuous pains of a relationship during the holidays, managing to even throw in a few choice insults and still feel personal and charming. Seriousness doesn’t always have to sound so down and out, as an upbeat Irish jig proves.
For the most part, what people want is a feeling of fun in their Christmas music, to remind them of the joy of their past memories, or of how great they intend to make their approaching Christmas. The indie Christmas album of last year, A Very She & Him Christmas, suffered from sounding too dour for the most part. It was saved only by Zooey Deschanel’s cute coo and the album’s few upbeat tracks, like “Christmas Day” and “Christmas Wish.” Tracey Thorn is the next to have a go at the Christmas album after coming off a fairly quiet year where her most flattering moment came when Jens Lekman namedropped her in one of his tracks.
Thorn’s not a figure you’d immediately associate with sleigh bell-coated track after track, and her album, Tinsel and Lights, proves that this assumption is kind of warranted. The album deviates away from just taking a bunch of traditional Christmas songs and covering the shit out of them, hoping to result in copious amounts of joy, happiness, and good cheer. Instead she takes only one familiar festive song (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) and surrounds it with a few other lesser-known Christmas songs, a couple of originals, and other tracks that evoke the season. It’s an admirable attempt at approaching the Christmas album from a different direction that would be easier to recommend were it not for the fact it’s a little too serious and lacking in a warming festive glow.
Tinsel and Lights sounds better when you consider it instead as a sort of covers album, but even then it struggles. “In The Cold, Cold Night” is a pleasant version of the White Stripes song that adds plenty of instrumentation to the originally barren song, but only reveals that it wasn’t a great track to begin with. The Randy Newman-penned “Snow” is here as a passable piano ballad, as is “Like A Snowman” while “Maybe This Christmas” perks up the proceedings a little with plenty of jingle bells and likeable backing vocals, but somehow ends up fairly unmemorable.
Thorn’s original tracks are better. “Joy” has the it’s very own Christmassy piano chords and doesn’t get too bogged down in the sadness of its situation: she portrays Christmas as an escape from the sadness of life during the rest of the year, and how it’s best to take as much joy as you can from it. Even if there is relief regarding the likes of medical worries, there’s always the lingering doubt that “it might be different in the new year.” The album’s title track does sound a little too much like “Fairytale of New York” (even referencing the same city–but then again, with all the movies and such, we’ve all come to associate Christmas with New York in some form or another), and lyrically seems intent on avoiding the hardships of life, and how the images of Christmas can act as a distraction. Its chorus, though unspectacular, lifts the spirit a little. In Thorn’s world there evidently isn’t a huge amount of joy to feed off of, so you have to appreciate as much as you can when it arrives.
Tinsel and Lights is at its best during its most Christmassy moments, which in the context of everything else, feels a little ironic, as Thorn sounds like she’s trying to avoid the holiday for the most part. Her exquisite version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is adorned with quivering and streaking strings as her voice and the piano carry the song. Joni Mitchell’s “River” is also another highlight that features Thorn’s warm, almost motherly voice singing over some carefully restrained brass, like a Salvation Army band playing amidst busy, ignorant shoppers on the high street. “Taking Down The Tree” features some welcome drum machines and synths, as well as some quaint vocals by Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside. Her version of Sufjan Steven’s “Sister Winter” carries on the sound, albeit more lightly and to better effect (which might just be a case of working with a better song), adding in some atmosphere that sounds like winter’s cold winds blowing in the background. She sells it well enough to take on the role of the mysterious Sister Winter, which isn’t meant as a demoing remark; the theatrical edge serves her well. Even in a sincere song, it manages to strip away some of the seriousness, which the album as a whole could have done with more of. As much as you try to draw attention to other issues (or just reality), people are still inevitably drawn to the bright side of Christmas.