“Happy people shouldn’t have all the fun!” proclaims English vet Tracey Thorn, on the phone from London. And on her new mostly-covers collection Tinsel and Lights, the less than happy people definitely get their due. If it’s an unconventional holiday record in that it’s not wall-to-wall holly-jolly, well, that’s Thorn for you. Anyone who followed the singer through her two decades as the voice of Everything but the Girl’s coolly seductive lounge pop, as well as her early stint with the post-punk Marine Girls and more recent solo albums, knows that the woman is many things. But cheery? Warm and fuzzy? A likely candidate to jump in the Christmas-release fray? Not so much. On the other hand, people change, and so has the definition of “Christmas record.”
“I’m not the first person who has kind of gone back to the Christmas record and seen if we could reinvent it, and try to find something meaningful in it,” says Thorn. “Over the last few years Low has done that, Sufjan Stevens has done it, [she covers both on the album] so now I think we’re in a position where a Christmas record can be any number of different things. It can still be a very traditional type record, or you can choose a more interesting selection of songs. For me, Christmas, or winter, is more just a sort of thematic link.” For instance, “In the Cold, Cold Night”, the White Stripes’ song that Thorn decided to “warm up” a bit from Meg’s more detached original, and “Hard Candy Christmas”, the bittersweet ode to endings and new beginnings from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. “At first I wondered if that one was too much of a country song,” she says of the song made famous by Dolly Parton, “but once I started singing it, I realized it’s not really a country song at all. It’s got more of a Carole King, late ’60s, early ’70s ballad-y quality.”
What makes Tinsel and Lights such a moving holiday record is the undeniable melancholy that runs throughout most of it, and which, truth be told, gets at the reality of the conflicted feelings of the season for many of us over age 12. It’s in Low’s “Taking Down the Tree” with its lyric about “broken reindeer”, and in the one Yule standard on the record, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, on which Thorn to her credit restores the original Judy Garland line “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” — normally dropped from more jollied-up revisionist versions. Equally wistful are “Like a Snowman”, written by Stephen Merritt for the drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb and suggested to Thorn by a fan on Twitter, and, most gloriously, “Sister Winter”, the Sufjan Stevens song with which Thorn closes the record on a slightly sunny note, as a heartbroken protagonist returns to wish her friends a happy Christmas. There’s even sleigh bells. “It’s such a sad song. It’s about feeling lonely, and despairing,” explains Thorn. “And yet in the midst of it all you’re just trying to wish people a happy Christmas. And to me, that’s all this record was going to be. You know, I was going to admit, in different songs, to sadness, and darkness. But at the end of it, we were just all going to join hands and wish each other Merry Christmas.”
In February, Thorn is set to release Bedsit Disco Queen, her autobiography which traces her life and career through her 2006 decision to return to music, after a hiatus to have kids with her EBTG partner and now husband Ben Watt. It’s those kids — two are 14, one is 11 — that prompted in Thorn a new appreciation of holiday time. “Once you have kids, you have this strange thing where you get back into all the stuff you did as a child yourself, and you start recreating it,” she says, but adds that her current view of Christmas is contained in one of the new album’s two originals, titled “Joy”. “I ask, ‘Well, why do we need things like Christmas?’ And it’s precisely because life can be difficult, and the older you get, the more you have to cope with difficult things. And that’s why we turn to celebrations like Christmas. Because they’re reassuring, and they bring us together. And they give us an excuse to string up lights!”
Tinsel and Lights is out now on Merge.