Tom Wijesinghe breaks down why 2020 has produced so many sad Christmas songs.
Songwriters the world over look to the Christmas season as an opportunity to bag the holy grail of a Christmas hit. But this year, the globally-felt apathy towards the traditional tidings of comfort and joy evoked by the usual canon of Christmas songs has opened up a gap for songwriters to fill with more sombre, pessimistic, and melancholic songs. While sad Christmas songs are certainly not new for 2020 (‘Last Christmas’, ‘Blue Christmas’, ‘Cold December Nights’ to name but a few), there has been an overwhelming dominance of pessimistic performances this year – no surprises here.
On 23rd November, Phoebe Bridgers released a cover of Merle Haggard’s formerly upbeat country song ‘If We Make it Through December’ from Christmas 1974. Though Haggard’s recording is certainly far from uplifting, with a sense of dread lying under the surface throughout, Bridgers’ reimagining is a stylistic departure from Haggard’s upbeat urtext with an arrangement pointedly accentuating the saddest elements of the song. The mellow upright piano and close-miked lead vocals are more reminiscent of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago or Billie Eilish’s ‘xanny’ than its composer’s own country-rock imagining. This is certainly not a new approach to Christmas songs for Bridgers, who combines in this release her similarly sad seasonal singles dating back to 2017, including an especially poignant cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘7 O’Clock News/Silent Night’, which vividly juxtaposes the peaceful 19th century Austrian hymn with a crushingly worldly radio newscast. Where Simon & Garfunkel’s grimly ironic track was covered empathetically by Bridgers, her 2020 Christmas release is a noticeably exaggerated caricature of Merle Haggard’s original sadness, with the hopeless lyrics seeping far more overtly into the musical arrangement.
In the same vein, Sam Fender’s cover of “certified Geordie legends” Lindisfarne’s ‘Winter Song’, while retaining Alan Hull’s excellent lyrics, ditches the dated Dylan-eque folk-rock arrangement for a richer combination of untuned upright piano, electric guitar, and strings. In his own words to Radio X’s George Godfrey, “I wanted to do a Christmas song, but I didn’t want to do something that was crass and crap”. This moving rendition and homage to a songwriter close to Fender’s heart is a confident success. This is stark contrast to Robbie Williams’ jarringly kitsch ‘Can’t Stop Christmas’, which successfully hits both every coronaviral cliché (ZOOM, two metres’ distance, hand sanitiser) and Christmas song cliché too (fast shuffle groove, children’s choir, sleigh bells). Instead, both Bridgers and Fender were able to provocatively comment on current affairs by re-contextualising older songs into the present day. When Sam Fender asks if when “you decide to stay in bed / do you spare a thought for the homeless man who wishes he was dead?” it takes on a new meaning entirely, asking questions about the privileges at play when our lives became increasingly restricted to our homes.
2020 also saw Liz Berry’s poem ‘Christmas Eve’ (originally from her 2014 Forward-winning collection Black Country) re-imagined in collaboration with Cerys Matthews and the Hidden Orchestra. Berry’s poem creates a vivid image of bustling Black Country estates which is more Hieronymus Bosch than Where’s Wally thanks to the unforgiving cold which permeates each individual moment – a melancholic essentialism also echoed in Carly Rae Jepson’s musically distinct ‘It’s not Christmas Till Somebody Cries’. Suitably, the expertly crafted musical accompaniment from Berry’s collaborators is dominated by a claustrophobic perpetuum mobile effect created by the combination of ticking clocks, a sequenced synthesiser, jangling bells, and an unrelenting piano in its highest registers.
On the subject of piano, even the title track of Jamie Cullum’s big-swinging The Pianoman at Christmas owes more to Billy Joel than Michael Bublé, as the lush orchestral arrangement gives a genuine pathos to the titular figure who is “just the piano man at Christmas”. The reality of the archetypal tragic entertainer has been all too palpable this year for performers unable to work for months. Introspective and personal songwriting such as this seems the more successful sad songwriting approach this year, especially when pitted against the bizarre ‘Green Christmas’ from husband-and-wife jazz duo L’Estranges In The Night, which attempts to process contrastingly universal climate-related anxieties in the form of a Christmas jazz ballad including howlers such as “what use are dreams of snow or kisses under mistletoe / while melting ice-caps leave our polar bears nowhere to go” and “there’s only one important thing to do… to be the eco-friendliest you’ve been”.
However, The L’Estranges’ eco-anthem is actually only the tip of the (melting?) iceberg when it comes to strangeness this year. 100 gecs’ absurd ‘sympathy 4 the grinch’ is a glitch pop revenge song about spoilt children attempting to steal from Santa’s sleigh when they didn’t get the gifts they wanted for Christmas. This anti-Santa sentiment is combined with climate concerns in U.S. Girls’ more palatable ‘Santa Stay Home’, in which lead singer Meg Remy calls for Santa (read: December consumerism) to join the self-isolating masses and stay home this year because “with both poles melting” to practice traditions far-distanced from their origins such as effectively cutting down Christmas trees “just to throw them out” is no longer justifiable. The subtle expression of this message through a lighthearted metaphor circumvents the problems faced by the uncomfortably overt ‘Green Christmas’.
The tradition revisionism continues with FINNEAS’ ‘Another Year’, which comes to terms with the inconsistencies between the inherited Christian Christmas ideal and his own experience as a secular Californian:
It never snows in LA
You’d never know it was a holiday
I don’t believe that Jesus Christ was born to save me
That’s an awful lot of pressure for a baby
This is indebted to Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun’ from 2009 which offered a counter to the traditional Christmas from an atheist perspective. Fellow Australian Julia Jacklin’s ‘baby jesus is nobody’s baby now’ is less optimistic, having been written at the end of 2019 during the bush fires in Melbourne. In her press release, she wrote that “at one point Melbourne was blanketed in smoke from the fires, the sun was this menacing red, it felt apocalyptic and pretty hopeless. I wrote this in my room looking forward to 2020, hoping it would be a reset of some kind lol”. Unfortunately for Jacklin, 2020 didn’t quite offer the change she hoped for. Fortunately for us as listeners, it gave a good excuse for Jacklin to release the song. Jacklin’s story stands to demonstrate that the sad side of Christmas is perhaps an annual occurrence that the canonic songs only serve to cover up. This annually recurring depression is perhaps given its best treatment by angsty Brighton rock outfit Porridge Radio in ‘The Last Time I Saw You (O Christmas)’. As lead vocalist Dana Margolin said of the track, it captures these “same cycles of heartbreak and depression endlessly repeating themselves” each Christmas.
It’s clear that the looming realities of a significantly different Christmastime have left songwriters with a decision whether to confront these changes or not. Many chose not to, including the huge releases from Dolly Parton and Lil Nas X which, while great any other year, perhaps failed to find their audience in 2020. For those artists that did, there was a real sense that the melancholy and pessimism of these songs could have a productive force in not only coming to terms with the peculiar state of affairs in the present, but also in exposing the problems inherent to Christmas generally with a view reshaping Christmas culture for years to come.
Does your Christmas need a sad soundtrack? Stream our playlist of all the songs listed in this article:
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Written by: Tom Wijesinghe