Reviewed by Johan Palme on 3rd December, 2016
Albums, we are reliably informed, are to be read as coherent wholes. If an individual track stands out too much, it’s meant to be detrimental to the cohesiveness of the complete package, and, it follows, to the quality.
The problem is, I suppose, when the reason a track stands out is because it’s better than everything else. What then?
On Tinsel and Lights, the Christmas album by ex-Everything But The Girl member Tracey Thorn, that track is “Joy”. To make matters worse, it’s the opening track. “Joy” is four remarkably dense and emtionally complex minutes of distillation of Christmas. Self-penned by Tracey Thorn, its built around the idea of Christmas a singular light in a dark world, while at the same time hinting at a failing relationship, deliciously using double meanings and complex metaphors to support either reading. “Everything is all clear […] but you know it might be different in the new year”, it states forbodingly – but denying that possibility, in denial, as an invocation against to stave off current and coming darkness, there’s the quite literal magic of Christmas. Tinsel and holly and the star on the tree take on meanings beyond decoration, ritualistic items that signify hope and goodness – but it’s a fragile hope.
“We must be alright, if we could make up Christmas night”, says the final line. That can be read as humanity and its imagination, surviving in dark times despite it all. But it can also be read as a couple’s uneasy Christmas truce, a pause in a break-up process, made poignant by the surrounding Joy.
The rest of the album, consisting largely of tasteful if over-literal covers of songs about winter, happiness, sorrow and Christmas, reads almost like a list of influences in the writing of “Joy”. They’re not as good, nor frankly as good as their originals, but it’s strangely appropriate context for an amazing single.