December 17, 2011

A Shane MacGowan Christmas

My compatriots have done an excellent job highlighting music that restores the seriousness of Christmas. As a Jew (a Reconstructionist, the lit-crit version of Judaism), I don’t feel like I have a stake in this game. Outside of a few songs, there aren’t any great Hanukkah albums. My holiday music tends be Klezmer, which can be played any time of the year.

There are a handful of Christmas songs I do enjoy. Wassails and winter songs aren’t necessarily Christmas songs: they are seasonal, coinciding with the Holidays. Indeed, “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving. There are carols that are based on excellent folk tunes that can get me moving (I will play “We Three Kings” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” as jigs). What tends to bother me about some Christmas songs is the repeated use of the same chord progressions, composed of I-ii-Vs and IV-iii-ii-I turnarounds (see “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Popular Christmas tunes tend to sound alike, which in my opinion reflects the composers’ laziness.

Among my favorite Christmas songs is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which could either be seen as deep and dark or over-the-top, the alternative version of It’s a Wonderful Life or the Christmas version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. From the production standpoint, the song is impeccable: soaring strings, perfectly timed transitions, even a big dropout to give power to “the bells were ringing out on Christmas day.” From a more cynical standpoint, the song is a crass attempt at a big commercial hit: the duet with Kirsty MacColl could be construed to be a gimmick, and the New York theme and the stadium sound are things a band might employ to try to crack the American market. It’s everything to be expected and dreaded from a Christmas song.

Yet the song, almost unknown in the United States, is repeatedly chosen in Irish, British and European polls as  the most popular Christmas song. In the United States, only a small group of forty-somethings know of its existence. Even many who know and still love The Pogues (my wife included) strain to remember it. Indeed, I improvised over its melodies at some recent charity events as an entr’acte–of the many people who commented how beautiful it was, not one person could name the tune. My own feeling is that the song loses out in the US because of The Pogues’ minor stature: Americans would embrace REM’s mixture of Southern Gothic and Stax Sound as the chosen hybrid of folk and alternative. The song’s critique of American consumerism does not help.

“Fairytale” is a four-minute, three movement oratorio of personal destruction that, by its end, offers only the hope of redemption. The first third is a slow waltz played as a barroom lament. “In the drunk tank,” an Irish immigrant realizes how far he has fallen and regrets the love he has lost. It’s not unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody”: the narrator has hit what may be the end of the road. Musically, this confessional is pure schmaltz, backed with piano and gentle strings. The reference to Irish moonshining, “The Rare Old Mountain Dew,” roots the song in ethnic memory.

The jig-time second movement is a conversation between the immigrant and his love as their relationship deteriorates under the sights and sounds of New York on Christmas Eve. The holiday, American prosperity, the excitement of the city, the alcohol, and, finally, their own vices contribute to their disintegration. MacGowan and MacColl sing back and forth at a breathless pace. Tempo aside, it’s an easy melody that is simple to sing. Jem Finer and Terry Woods play the lilting melody on accordion and octave mandolin to bring the song more firmly into Irish folk music. Spider Stacy’s tin whistle joins in to counterpoint their melody. MacGowab and MacColl’s euphoria erupts into a violent argument, the couple hurling only the worst insults at each other: “Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed”. “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’” is sung over the IV in an uplifting manner that is typical of so many great folk songs (think “Round yon virgin, mother and child” or “the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls.”)

The third section brings back the waltz theme. Band and orchestra play together as the immigrant admits the injuries he has caused and looks for the tiniest ‘something’ on which to rebuild his relationship. “I could have been someone,” MacGowan sings. “Well, so could anyone,” MacColl retorts, “you took my dreams from me when I first found you.” The words sting, but MacColl delivers them in a deadpan manner, almost at the point of exhaustion. Having MacColl harmonize with herself over this section sounds out of place, even dated. Perhaps this was meant to emphasize that MacGowan is imagining a conversation that either he has yet to have or may never have. Regardless, the smoothness of MacColl’s delivery contrasts perfectly with MacGowan’s gruff, intoxicated singing.  It’s a realization of their interdependence and the possibility that there might be common ground between them: “can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.” After one more turn at the chorus, the band plays out the waltz melody backed by the lush orchestra.

“Fairytale of New York” is reality illuminated by the spirit of the Holidays—Christmas without the magic. It appears to run away from It’s a Wonderful Life: there is no divine intervention. But if there is no miracle for this couple, it’s hard to imagine they would reach this state—good and bad—if it were not Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. It allows McGowan to realize that something does really matter.

The greatest Christmas song? Maybe. “Fairytale of New York” fills two desires. It is a story with some gravitas, a representation of real-world relationships that can be re-examined and remade under the guise of the Holidays. On the other hand, it’s gorgeous pop music composed of folk themes, changing moods, uplifting choruses, and that “special holiday message.”  There is something of substance that is pulling at our heartstrings, which is what we hope we get from Holiday songs. The song is simply precious. It convinces me that there can be something special for everyone at this time of the year.

Filed under Analysis and Opinion, Folk, Indie