For a few years now, I’ve had for a playlist on Spotify called “(Blue) Christmas”. I made it the winter of my freshman year of college, when my parents had just moved to Florida and I was upset and jealous of the christmases of white back home in New York. It’s a collection of sad holiday songs, a handful of classics, and some other slow winter ballads.
I start listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Well, perhaps its more accurate to say that I never really stop listening to holiday music. Whenever the mood strikes, I cue up my Yule Log and get to listening; this is one whim I happily indulge and will defend to anyone who calls it inappropriate.There’s just something special about it, the odd mix of joy and melancholy that comes with the season.
It’s no easy feat to capture such a particular mood, but Phoebe Bridgers does it perfectly. And so, I will certainly be listening to her release from last winter, “Christmas Song”, next July.
The song is a cover of McCarthy Trenching’s 2008 track of the same name. Bridgers is a master of songs that are equally soft and forceful, and she maintains the unassuming wit of the original while adding her distinctive touch of devastation and the gentlest of piano accompaniments. The song is a lovely companion to the prior year’s cover, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” an equally gut-punching take on the classic.
“Christmas Song” captures that very particular phenomenon that the holidays tend to bring about: when you know you’re not feeling what you’re supposed to be feeling, or what everyone around you is feeling, or maybe you’re just feeling it all too much or not enough. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s not a magical cure-all.
Bridgers leans in to the genre a bit, adding a subtle sleigh bell, but otherwise the instrumental parts are simple. Her imitable voice is the main focus, adding a tenderness that makes Dan McCarthy’s original lyrics all the more impactful.
It’s the kind of song you want playing in the background while you’re standing outside, in the front yard of your childhood home, cold in your ugly sweater and tights, holding a cup of eggnog, stepping out from a holiday party when the merriment inside had become a little suffocating.
She talks about the guilt that comes with feeling like your sadness is a burden— “a brick through the window” or a “wave” in the sea — and the pressure of not wanting to ruin things when everyone is so busy. The song isn’t a display of hopeless remorse, though. As the melody builds, it somehow becomes almost triumphant in its declaration that “you dont have to be alone to be lonesome”. By the third round of this heart-shattering line, Phoebe is no longer singing solo. Her voice is joined by Jackson Browne. The song builds to a beautiful climax, that kind of musical genius that I swear you can actually feel in your heart, perfectly matching the poignancy of the lyric. It’s that feeling of being surrounded by people, but still feeling like you are by yourself.
But, at the end of the day, even if its sad, it’s still beautiful and very much alive.
All of this to say: I think I should probably just make that playlist “Christmas Song” a hundred times.