The Christmas album still stutters on in mainstream America for the likes of Beyonce (who recorded one with Destiny’s Child) and Justin Bieber.
The most startling recent addition was Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (2009), a warm-hearted excuse for Dylan fans to own all the hokey Christmas classics.
Now this year, after many false starts, there’s a genuine groundswell of new Christmas songs by unlikely young names – Gruff Rhys (whose Atheist Xmas EP considers suicidal depression amidst the decorations), She & Him (M. Ward and Hollywood actress Zooey Deschanel), and Emmy The Great and Ash’s Tim Wheeler. The latter’s This Is Christmas LP was hatched when the pair were stuck at Gatwick in last December’s snowstorms, and amiably combines humour (“Zombie Christmas”) and seasonal observation. Tonight the pair are in Shepherds Bush, in dress and tux respectively, for a short, quite sweet one-off show.
Wheeler, looking good in a suit, croons respectably. Emmy is drowned out by the scratch band (men in shades, backing singers in their best dresses), but finds her feet on ballads such as the simple, straight country of “It Was Christmas In Prison”, with Wheeler on steel guitar. Wham’s “Last Christmas” sounds like a sleepy Ash song, with Emmy softly shaking maracas she holds like a cocktail. “Home for the Holidays” has a heavier crunch of drums, keyboard-sourced sleigh-bells and mild guitar wailing. It’s most memorable, though, for the always chatty Emmy’s defiantly unlikely claim that “they don’t celebrate Christmas in East Grinstead, where I’m from – they’re all Scientologists”.
After “See You Next Year”, a mundane but effective relative of “Auld Lang Syne”, they return for an encore including the straight sentiment of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, and the inspired surrealism of their own “Jesus the Reindeer”. “Donner, Blitzen – Jesus!” Emmy yells, introducing Santa’s unlikely new helper over ramalama rock’n’roll. A pleasant if inconsequential gig becomes truly special, though, when they finish with The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”. It’s the only perfect modern expression of the Christmas song, of course, one haunted by drink, death and infirmity, and full of broken romance and blowsy yet gritty sentiment. The duo take a minute to get into character (Emmy taking Kirsty Macoll’s part, of course). But soon, amidst universal grins, the NYPD are singing “Galway Bay” again. And suddenly, it feels like Christmas.