[First posted 16 December 2014]
Do you want to know what the best Christmas song of all time is? Well, to be bluntly honest, nothing’s ever going to beat ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ by The Pogues feat. Kirsty Macoll. But a close second – ok, third, because you’ve got to include Jonah Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’ – must be Thea Gilmore’s take on Elvis Costello’s little known Crimbo masterpiece ‘The St. Stephen’s Day Murders’.
Just like with the McGowan and co’s fairy tale, there’s a “feat.” credit, radio DJ Mark Radcliff in this case, and, just like that collaboration, this song is riddled with domestic tension. The murders of the songs title are not genuine instances of homicide, but the products of an over active imagination where begrudging hosts start wishing unwelcome family members would leave (“and it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them in the St. Stephen’s Day murders”). It’s delivered against a fantastic folk knees up of a reel which gets more and more raucous as it proceeds.
‘The St. Stephen’s Day Murders’ is an anomaly on an album which is otherwise much more meditative, tender and thought provoking. Yet, somehow, it fits in perfectly.
Strange Communion, from which the song of Boxing Day massacres comes, is a haunting, lingering record. It opens with an a capella hymn to a Roman god, ‘Sol Invictus’, urging the sun to emerge and put an end to a wintery night. It is utterly, utterly gorgeous the kind of thing that will make your neck hairs leap to attention. First Gilmore herself sings. Then, slowly a choir joins in adding booming bass and angelic harmonies at once.
This is an album as much about winter (see titles such as ‘Thea Gilmore’s Winter Toast’, ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’ and ‘Old December’) as it is about Christmas itself. And so there is, simultaneously, a chill in the air and a protective warmth about the recording. It’s a record of yearning and searching, the death of the old and looking forward to the new – and musing on what the new might entail.
And so ‘Thea Gilmore’s Winter Toast’ sees out the past year with lines like “I have turned and I have learned/to make next year the better one” while ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’ is delivered with a sense of awe and wonder. ‘December in New York’ continues the theme with an eschewing of cynicism (“I know I should be spitting bitter/just for interest it’s more fitting/for a girl like me”) in favour of unashamed dreamy optimism: “If you listen close/you’ll hear the fairy lights and smoke/of the East Coast calling”).
Even at the album’s poppiest moments, this feeling of a hope for some intangible goodness shines through. ‘That’ll be Christmas’ documents the comfort of a festive routine (“Hot wine and a Christmas tree/The Sound of Music and the family/faith, hope and gluttony/that’ll be Christmas”).
It’s the complete antithesis of ‘The St. Stephen’s Day Murders’, but both songs hint at this persistent need that dominates the album. The Christmas routines of the one song are soothing, while the traditions in the other song form the frustrating reason why peace and the awe experienced elsewhere are less than forthcoming.
The record’s highlight comes in the spoken word track, ‘Book of Christmas’. Against a lilting, slightly spooky backing, Gilmore recites a series of beautifully poetic observations. There is a nostalgia for the lost childhood magic of Christmas (“The feeling that Christmas Day was a coral island in time/where we land and eat our lotus/but where we can never stay”).
And there are thoughts about the contrast between the origins of Christmas: “the child born…to cut the Gordian Knot of logical self-interest…knocking the heads of church and state together” and what it has become (“letting the belly have its say/ignoring the spirit while we eat”).
Strange Communion is not the work of a devout proselytiser, reminding us that Jesus is the reason for the season; the references to pagan gods and secular treats easily confirm this (“Whoever you praise/raise a glass for these days”, Gilmore sings in ‘Old December’, a benediction recalling the last moments of each Dave Allen routine).
It is, nevertheless, an unfailingly beautiful collection of thoughts about the end of things, the beginning of other things and the need to take a moment to allow yourself time for marvelling at the fairy lights and smoke once more.