It’s time to talk Christmas. To be more exact, it’s time to talk about the singular seasonal genre of ‘Christmas song’. I’m going to assume that you all have an opinion on all the sleigh-bells currently filling the air; either you hit play on the Christmas CD the moment December begins (starting any earlier is utterly criminal) or you resolutely refuse to engage in the ‘holiday spirit’. I’m in the former camp. I love a Christmas song. Well, I love a certain type of Christmas song. For me there is nothing greater than hearing those songs I grew up with whilst decorating a tree or running around like an idiot with my siblings; Dad shouting at us to calm down while the sugar worked it’s hyper-realistic magic. We used to drink a lot of sugar, my siblings and I. Now, when I listen to these songs I clearly can recall all those Christmas moments as if I were still there and it makes me happy.
Though like I said, only certain Christmas songs do it for me and unfortunately anything recorded after 1994 seems surplus to requirement. I loved those earlier songs because of the memories they gave me. Happy Christmas memories of family and youth. Isn’t that why we like Christmas so much? That regular time of year where we can all get together with family and regress back into the safe cocoons of childhood. For all the obvious symbolism of the Christian calender and all the marketing ploy of presents; what we look forward to most is having one day where we can hit pause on our lives and feel happy. I admittedly write this from the viewpoint of a close and stable family so my experiences are unlikely to be shared by many of you. Still, I think what my family does each December is pretty much how Hollywood would like us to see it; a massive turkey eaten around a massive table with everybody merry on booze and good cheer. The happiest of pictures.
Shortly after this was taken we were arrested by the cool police.
The problem I have with more recent Christmas songs is that they either reek of capitalism (‘Shake Up Christmas – Coke Xmas anthem‘ anyone?) or of simply trying too damn hard. There is a horrid tendency for musicians to build on the canon of truly great Christmas songs by releasing a rushed dirge that is only distinguished as being seasonal by cursory lyrical flourishes and the occasional sleigh-bell. The Killers have released a Christmas song for charity every year since 2006 but much like Band Aid 30, no amount of earnest motive can hide the musical boredom within each song. You can hear them forcing festive imagery into their bland musical cutoffs with the precision of a slab. None of it sits easily. It’s just so awfully laboured. Christmas songs should never be laboured, they should be joyous and affecting! Of course, some child out there is probably imprinting the Killers and Hurts’ festive offerings with joyful memories but I really struggle to see how when society still rams home the classics of the past in each every vaguely Christmas-themed film. Remember, we live in a world where Ronan Keating can seriously cover ‘Fairytale of New York’ while Chris Brown vamps clumsily over Donny Hathaway. The tide is very much against the new.
Let this make it better.
At least that’s what I solidly believed until literally 2 days ago where through some cosmic chance I heard Coldplay’s attempt for the first time since 2010. I am not a big Coldplay fan, they lost me at X&Y so I was pretty dismissive when they originally released ‘Christmas Lights’. I really shouldn’t have been; this song deserves to become a classic in it’s own right. A beacon of honesty in a fickle landscape. Let me explain: I find that the great festive songs fit roughly into two basic categories; the ‘warm introspection’ (WI) and the ‘drunken knees-up’ (DK). A basic song of WI would tell some kind of juletide story over a complex lush arrangement that reaffirms the more familial, safe aspects of the holiday. Typical WI songs include ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham (story driven narrative) and ‘I believe in Father Christmas’ by Greg Lake (complex instrumental arrangement). The contrasting DK songs are the ones that you jump like mad things to at the office party; simple structure but played with gusto in an attempt to capture the joy of the holiday. The classic of this field being ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ by Slade but Mariah Carey and Shakin’ Stevens get a look in too. Any combination of both can lead to utter magic but these are few and far between; personally, I can only think of two right now.
So where does this leave Coldplay? The reflective melancholy and complex structure sits it nicely in the WI camp. It’s something about those low vocal registers that get me. It’s so unassuming, as if Chris Martin is singing to no-one but himself. An intimacy that you don’t find in many regular songs let alone seasonal ones. It manages to prod memories that it has no connection to; particularly childhood races up the church path on yet another resolutely grey Christmas. I really don’t know why. Maybe it’s all those open chords hinting at carol accompaniments. But then Coldplay then close out the song with the slow singalong of a restrained DK. An image of all of the put-upon sitting in a pub finding solace together in song. A little happiness for a fleeting moment; the Christmas spirit in action without a sleigh-bell to be heard.
This beautifully constructed song deserves better recognition. Chris Martin turned all the fires of his talent to writing a moment that connects us all within grey tinged, festive aspirations. It doesn’t explode into choirs and bells, it simply gathers us together in communion before sitting back smiling at the scene. Knowing the mixed territory Coldplay were to move through after this moment it seems right to laud this simple, restrained moment of song. So from me to you: That’ll do, Coldplay. That’ll do.