Tinsel and Lights
by Tracey Thorn
Merge Records (2012)
You loved it as a kid
And now you need it more than you ever did
It’s because of the dark
You see the beauty in the spark
That’s why, that’s why
The carols make you cry
Sentimentalism, in my view, is the enemy of a genuine “Christmas spirit.” No holiday is more down-to-earth, more human, more realistic. If the sparse nativity narratives in the New Testament came with a soundtrack, much of it would be played and sung in minor keys. Therefore, I like my music for Advent and Christmas on the darker side. “Comfort and joy” is best appreciated by those who feel the tensions, struggles, and losses that are inherent to the season.
For that reason, I don’t simply savor holiday records that speak directly to the story of Christmas. I also find helpful those that describe the stark landscapes and wintry weather of the northern hemisphere, as well as the human experiences which mirror those drear climes. The “bleak midwinter” is a perfect context to help us appreciate the Light.
Tracey Thorn, British pop singer and songwriter, has given us such an album this Christmas.
“Tinsel and Lights” is a sparse and thoughtful compilation of seasonal songs that are mostly covers, with two originals by Thorn. She draws from artists as diverse as Randy Newman, Jack White, Dolly Parton, and Sufjan Stevens to present a set of bittersweet “secular carols” that speaks to the heart with pensive simplicity. In addition to “Joy” and “Tinsel and Lights,” which Thorn penned, my favorites are “Hard Candy Christmas,” which gains ballast from a strong arrangement and her convincing vocals, and “Sister Winter,” Stevens’ evocative song that combines confession, apologies, and wishes for a happy Christmas. In addition, Tracey Thorn is the first singer I have heard who even comes close to doing justice to Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a perfect choice for the lone canonical holiday song on the record.
I love albums, not just songs, and it is always a treat when an artist compiles a coherent and consistent program of music that takes the listener somewhere revelatory. “Tinsel and Lights” does that, with only a couple of hiccups, but I can even endure those when they are an integral part of the journey.
So light the winter fire
And watch as the flames grow higher
We’ll gather up our fears
And face down all the coming years
And all that they destroy
And in their face we throw our