Velvet Ribbon, Blood
256 · 23 December 99
I hate Christmas for a host of small reasons, too, but most of them are variations on two fundamental objections. The first is that at least here in the US, Christmas is the single most egregious and pathologically self-contradictory example of systemic insincerity I regularly encounter, edging out the entertainment industry and the political process, in my ranking, on the grounds that the entertainment industry is more vacuous than insincere, and that Presidential elections, while comparably appalling, take place only a quarter as often. "It's over-commercialized", everybody has been taught to grouse; even dissent has been coöpted, as if the problem is a matter of degree, and the holiday season would be a paragon of cultural discretion if only K-Mart would tone down the graphic design of its December circulars a little. Christmas isn't over-commercialized, it's defined by commerce. The carefully meta-religious phrase "holiday season" isn't informed magnanimity, it's just pandering to a wider audience. Try this experiment: carry a notebook around with you tomorrow, Christmas Eve, and write down, in the first of four columns, every holiday message, in any medium, you encounter. At the end of the day, before you go to sleep, fill in the second column with the nominal translation of each message, and the third column with the message's author's real goal. The wreath over the entrance to Home Depot, for example, is nominally some vague expression of winter solidarity, but it was really put there according to a corporate edict whose intent is to relax the consumption restrictions under which people usually operate. "Spend more!", it cheerfully recommends, while muttering, under its breath, "Only an asshole would subject the Spirit of Giving to small-minded parsimony." (And, disguised as a trailing cough: "Snow blower.") When you're done translating, use the fourth column for percentages expressing, approximately, the amount of the literal meaning that is devoted to expressing the nominal sentiment. I'm pretty intolerant, and assign a lot of zeros (I give Home Depot ten percent for effort, but then dock them five because the wreath is made out of such unconvincing plastic, and another five when four of the four employees I have to deal with to find a Welcome mat prove unable to answer a simple question without complaining about what the season has done to their normally peaceful store), but make your ratings as charitable as you like. Now total them and average. And then wince.
The other big thing I hate about Christmas is that there's virtually nothing good about it that wouldn't be better if it were spread throughout the year. Gift-giving, decorations, baking, holiday parties, sending notes to people with whom you've fallen out of touch, donating to charity: all these noble pursuits, to the extent they are practiced at all, are compressed into a few frantic, resentment-laced weeks, and then forgotten about for the next eleven months. You could contend that without Christmas, even this much wouldn't happen, but I'm not actually that cynical. Take away the inertia towards scheduled solicitude, and I think we would devise healthier alternatives of our own. Even though the absence of sincerely expansive emotion around Christmas is exactly what I despise, I feel forced to compensate, personally, by adopting a dour reticence for the duration. In what should be a season for open arms and hearts, and for reaching out, I pull my shields even more tightly around me, and each year share the holiday with a more scrupulously constrained group of people, only a few family members and a handful of close friends. I don't decorate, I don't throw parties, I don't send cards. I do expend some energy picking out presents, but I do my shopping in a spasmodic burst, put off until as late as possible, and I wrap in only the most literal sense of the word (last year I used aluminum foil for anything that didn't fit in a brown-paper lunch sack; this year I'm thinking of using larger sacks). Some years I give away a little money, some years I don't. Without Christmas, I'm almost certain I would do more. I suspect many would. We would celebrate, and give, of our own volition, and in our own terms, and on our own time. And the component of joy, which seems so elusive as we struggle through December traffic snarls and fight like ill-bred zombies over whatever objects' commercials most crassly exploited our emotional vulnerabilities this year, would, I stubbornly believe, have a genuine chance to infuse our actions, rather than being crushed by their logistics. It saddens me, every year, that in a way we never get to find out how good-hearted we are, how willing we would be to touch each other even if the enormous klaxons at Macy's and Amazon.com didn't go off the day after Thanksgiving.
Christmas music is, in the larger ethical scheme of things, hardly the season's most serious crime, but it's the most intrusive reminder of all the things I hate, and thus it tends to become a convenient focus for my loathing. One sign, then, that maybe I'm inching closer to finding a way to enjoy the season, is that this year I bought four Christmas albums, two more than I ever have before. Admittedly two were pop compilations, which is sort of cheating. Boston label Q Division's Viva Noel suffers from the inevitable stylistic inconsistency of a collection whose rationale is geographic, but Jen Trynin and Aimee Mann contribute pretty interpretations of "The Christmas Song", Merrie Amsterburg does a serene, glittering version of the Pretenders' "2000 Miles", the Sheila Divine update "O Holy Night" for a stadium mass, and the Fly Seville play "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" like they're a teenage Jeff Buckley. Kindercore's Christmas Two, on the other hand, might well be the best compilation I've heard this year, but its two dozen songs about Christmas include virtually no Christmas music.
The third album, unfortunately, Jewel's Joy: A Holiday Collection, was nearly dreadful enough to be the last straw. I knew it would be bad, cloying to the brink of suffocation, but I wasn't prepared for it to be so anonymous. If Jewel sounded, on much of Spirit, like all her enthusiasm for respiration had been suppressed by drugs, Joy sounds more like she wasn't even present. If she'd shaken herself out of this horrible trance a day before the crates of Joy left the plant, and recanted her involvement, Atlantic could have stripped her voice off the masters and reused the backing tracks (and all the packaging except the cover and spines, for that matter) for anybody they could conscript. I wish they had; I'd rather have listened to Jewel read a moisturizing-cream infomercial script off a teleprompter at gunpoint than heard her lend her voice to something this common. I'm not sure which is more insulting: the booklet-insert hawking pendants and candles ("Products that respect Humanity and the Earth", it claims, misunderstanding "respect", "Humanity" and "the Earth" with bracing efficiency), or Jewel singing "My hands are small, I know / But they're not yours / They are my own" in the odious Christmas remake of "Hands", colluding in the mock-solemnity of an album that demonstrates, as succinctly as anything I've heard, the danger of letting your small hand sign something other people's hands shaped.
If there's any antidote to the treacly poison of shallow, saccharine joylessness, it's either this stark, wholly unromanticized, eight-song holiday EP by Low, titled simply Christmas, or else I haven't heard it. I might have guessed that a Low Christmas album would consist of a rendition of "Silent Night" in which the title concept is not described, it's actually depicted, but that would be both glib hyperbole and uninformed by how little of Secret Name, the last Low album, was prefigured by what I'd come to think of as their formula. Yes, there's a version of "Silent Night" here, and it's slow and haunting in exactly the way you'd realistically imagine, a diffidently resonant duet between Alan and Mimi shored up only by sketchy acoustic guitar, the walls of the room crowding close to join the ensemble, clustered around a single microphone. The first three syllables of "Blue Christmas" sound like Mimi is beginning a Patsy Cline impersonation, but her eerie, levitated delivery (like an equation-modeling of a human throat played with a cello bow) and the band's implacable, minimalist reduction of the accompaniment drain the rhythm out of song, and turn it from a coy come-on disguised as a lament into a calmly morbid eulogy disguised as a postcard, or a lullaby for a receding tide. "Little Drummer Boy", the third traditional Christmas song here, is mashed into a distorted, droning blur, like a frayed, fading transmission from the distant galaxy where they still understand the awe this music is supposed to reflect and convey. And the scratchy, obliquely nostalgic "Taking Down the Tree", although it's a Low song, seems to me like their contribution to the traditional canon, an attempt to fill the void of songs about the aftermath of the holiday, and thus extend Christmas' province.
But the other four original Low songs are the ones that invest a dead idea with new life, for me. "Just Like Christmas", the opener, might be the quickest, bounciest pop song Low has ever done, with a booming Spector-esque drum track propelling an acoustic guitar, some sort of horn (trombone?), and Mimi singing like an alternate-history Aimee Mann that never discovered Squeeze. The lyrics, characteristically for Low, are half koan, half diary entry: "On our way from Stockholm it started to snow, and you said it was like Christmas, but you were wrong. By the time we got to Oslo the snow was gone, and we got lost. The beds were small, but we felt so young. It was just like Christmas." This, and not "Jack Frost nipping at your nose", is a Christmas memory the way they exist in minds, clothed in just enough detail for you to be sure that somebody really lived them, but not enough to tell exactly why they remember this one more than others. "Long Way Around the Sea" is a skeletal pilgrimage anthem, a marching chant for remembering that Christ didn't part seas for anybody's convenience (which might be the subtlest theological point ever asserted in ostensibly popular music). The pendulous, liturgical "If You Were Born Today", too, is a Christmas song in the truest, most neglected sense, an unapologetic hymn of Christian faith, at once an apology to Christ for the heathen state of the world ("if you were born today we'd kill you") and a plea, on behalf of the undeserving, for compassion and forgiveness. I'm an atheist, but if the choice is between a Christmas consecrated to shopping and one with a coherent identity as a moment of thanks to the Son of God for delivering a new set of instructions and then dying to redeem us from sin, I'm willing to be excluded from the latter conception if that will make it profound to somebody. Many of the core values we've come to attribute to Christmas can be phrased perfectly well in secular terms, but maybe that isn't the right approach, after all. We've distilled humanity out of a holy idea, which seems like a sensible idea to me, but we've also presided over its spiritual dissolution, and it would be obtuse not to wonder whether one caused the other.
The album ends, at its sparest and most reverent, with the brief "One Special Gift", Zak's bass carillon ringing under Mimi's exhalation of a closing prayer. "After we've spent all the money on nieces and nephews and a couple of friends, there'll be just enough left for one special gift." My kitchen table is covered with presents, and several more, thanks to the wonders of virtual shopping, will reach their recipients without actually spending time here. One or two of the presents are remarkable (my father, I'm pretty sure, will be bemused), but I mostly give books and records, and have for years. I've spent a fair amount of money, but if the money went away, I'd think of something that didn't require it. The real gift these books and records symbolize is the same one Low mean by this EP's dedication: "Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you." Our real gifts are given the moment we write each other's names on a list, the moment that we realize we care about each other enough to brave the swirling debris of a mangled holiday to include each other in what, if we squint and imagine, it might once have signified. Low have given me these songs. True, they don't know me, but they can infer my presence, and probably guess a lot about me. They probably know, full well, that indie audiences are wary of evangelism, even when it's only metaphorical, and that rooting these songs so deeply in their own beliefs is a risk. And while I don't know what we've done to deserve their faith, evidently they think we will understand that a worthwhile relationship, whether between individuals or between constructs like a band and its audience, only functions if the participants feel free to be exactly who they are. And if Low is that brave, I'll be that brave, too. I don't have a tradition to enfold you in, or a promise of salvation to hold out. I don't how you live your life, or how you want to. I didn't buy you a present. In part, undeniably, I sit down in front of this computer every week for reasons of my own, some complicated and some simple. But Low didn't have to release this record, and if I did this only for myself, I doubt I would have kept at it this long. Many weeks, uploading files around dawn on Thursday morning, I have no clear idea whether the journal of this stage of my obsessive search for a clearer and more humane understanding of our collective self is literature or bookkeeping. Many weeks, perhaps you're not sure, either. So many songs, it would be so much easier to just let them pass. Being merely entertained requires less effort, less time. This much Low knows about me, and I about you: you are patient, and you are looking for something, and whatever you are looking for, you are not yet convinced that it isn't something I want, too. It might be nothing more than a perfect song that for three minutes makes you forget there's anything still to be sought, or nothing less than the character of truth. And so, for whatever you would call the holiday you'd invent, if this flimsy pre-fab one were trashed, here are our presents: from Low to me, a luminous reminder that a private coordinate system always supersedes the ones drawn on street surfaces and video screens, so the cartographer to blame for aimlessness is always yourself; from Low to you, whatever sympathetic buoyancy you derive from temporarily inhabiting somebody else's ardent spiritual unease; from you to me, a few minutes once a week, just enough enthusiasm to be aware when it's Thursday again, and maybe a note, now and then, when I find a shard of something particularly beautiful or ugly; and from me to you, the will to follow strange noises where they lead, and, if we're incredibly lucky, once in a while, a missing piece of your argument with yourself about who you are, or, on an ambitious day, who else you might become.