Tinsel and Lights, the first Christmas album by English alt-pop singer Tracey Thorn, is an album about falling back in love with Christmas as an adult. Which assumes, of course, that at some point she and her listeners have fallen out of love with Christmas. Comprised of 10 well-chosen covers and two Thorn originals, Tinsel is a good holiday album for smart, gentle souls who like fires, sweaters, and evocative songwriting, and who avoid the mall on Black Friday.
In her lilting title track, Thorn recounts a visit to New York City with the friends of holidays past, one of whom drinks a martini that “literally floored her”. At some point the friends either get mugged or listen to the Beastie Boys’ “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, along with “Miss America” (the Styx song?), and all these little details add up to quite a memory. “Something almost true was in the air,” she sings. But after a while, the memory starts to fade. The friends get older and drift apart, and Thorn tries to hang on by remembering a kiss in the snow. This is her thesis, what Christmas means to Tracey Thorn: friends, love, and heartache, the air heavy with snow and deeper meanings that remain just out of reach.
She’s picked her repertoire accordingly. Like friends over martinis, several of these songs offer advice for the brokenhearted. Stephin Merritt’s “Like a Snowman”, from the show of cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, advises dancing naked in the falling snow. Joni Mitchell’s oft-covered “River” suggests making a lot of money and skating away. Sufjan Stevens imagines returning his heart to “Sister Winter”, a retreat into pseudo-paganism that knows no pain. The album’s two most down-to-earth songs, the White Stripes’ “In the Cold Cold Night” and Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” (written by Carol Hall), get through the winter the old-fashioned way: with sex and apple wine.
Thorn’s voice is so warm, like a fluffy afghan that keeps unfurling, it’s hard to believe she’s never cut a Christmas album. (She sang some of Everything But the Girl’s 1994 “25th December”, a masterpiece of the “Christmas revelation” subgenre.) Her open tone and modest delivery are ideal for these songs, which are best enjoyed in the background at a party or while cuddling. She swings her syncopated songs, like Green Gartside’s lovelorn synthpop jaunt “Snow In Sun”, with calm authority. She and producer Ewan Pearson open up the songs with subtle overdubbed harmonies and moody guitar parts. (EBTG partner Ben Watt shows up in a couple places.) On a few songs, Nick Ingman’s string and brass arrangements are also models of tasteful restraint.
Of course, tasteful restraint isn’t always what you want, in music or at Christmas. There’ll always be a place for the lunacy of Phil Spector, “O Holy Night”, Messiah, and The American Song-Poem Christmas. In both its religious and capitalist incarnations, Christmas begs to go big. But if you’re feeling alienated by all that bigness, Tracey Thorn understands you. “When someone very dear / Calls with the words ‘Everything’s all clear,’” she sings in “Joy”, her other lovely original, “It’s what you want to hear / But you know it might be different in the new year. That’s why… we hang the lights so high.” That seems as good a reason as any.