In the bleak mid­win­ter, one song sums up the Christ­mas blues

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

THE RACE for the Christ­mas No 1 sin­gle has al­ways been a dis­tress­ing nov­elty af­fair, but since The X Fac­tor en­tered the fray and all those earnest types started their inane Face­book pe­ti­tion pages, it’s now be­come a vir­tual asy­lum. There are the su­per­stars (Gaga, Bieber et al) throw­ing their hat in along with the usual maudlin rub­bish that gets churned up each year. And there’s al­ways some­thing that hides un­der the ex­cuse of “char­ity”.

It’s such an open field now – and so eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by mu­si­cal lob­by­ists – that it re­ally wouldn’t sur­prise if Ein­stürzende Neubauten were to carry off the hon­ours one of these years.

De­spite all the weird and off­beat that now gets dredged up at the be­gin­ning of De­cem­ber, there is one song out there which never gets a men­tion but would be per­fect. Not only is it Christ­mas­re­lated, but it’s also one of the best songs ever recorded.

Reg­u­lar read­ers of this col­umn will know that once the phrase “best song ever recorded” makes an ap­pear­ance, The Blue Nile can’t be far be­hind. (Look­ing online for their mas­ter­ful Christ­mas-re­lated song, Fam­ily Life, the other day, I was mor­bidly amused to see that the pop-up ad on the page where I found it was of­fer­ing me the chance to “lo­cate some­one’s death doc­u­ments online – free of charge!” What a merry jape.)

Fam­ily Life is from The Blue Nile’s Peace at Last al­bum. That’s the one that weak-willed fans some­times crit­i­cise. But it doesn’t work like that with this Glas­gow band. You can’t be a ca­sual fan and start com­par­ing this and that within their oeu­vre. You’re a lifer and you ac­cept the to­tal­ity of their work for what it is. To this day, Paul Buchanan is the only in­ter­vie­wee I’ve ever kept in touch with af­ter­wards.

There’s a beau­ti­ful es­say out there some­where by Mar­cello Car­lin that gets to the essence of the most ne­glected but most won­der­ful Fam­ily Life. “On ev­ery Blue Nile al­bum there is a mo­ment where time is lit­er­ally stopped and emo­tions laid open and bare,” writes Car­lin. “On A Walk Across the Rooftops it was Easter Pa­rade; on Hats it was From a Late Night Train (with its un­con­scious re­minders of Hardy’s On a Heath). Peace at Last, the third Blue Nile al­bum, came out in 1996 and re­ceived a muted re­ac­tion – the con­sen­sus was that they had be­come too glossy – but Fam­ily Life, buried deep at its core, is the cyno­sure of all of the group’s work.”

Fam­ily Life is the per­fect Christ­mas song be­cause it deals with the iso­la­tion, re­gret and bit­ter feel­ings of sep­a­ra­tion that are usu­ally crowded out dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son. Whether it is writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of a man mourn­ing the break-up of a re­la­tion­ship – which cuts that bit deeper at Christ­mas­time – is, in fact, quite ir­rel­e­vant. What’s im­por­tant is the supreme state­li­ness of how Buchanan ar­ranges and de­liv­ers one of his most mov­ing vo­cal lines.

That is not to de­fine Fam­ily Life as a sad song. The singer may be “fall­ing apart” and be­seech­ing peo­ple to pray for him. And there are the lines: “Sep­a­rate chairs in sep­a­rate rooms/je­sus please make us happy some­time/no more shout, no more fight.” Yet there’s a stri­dency to the nar­ra­tor’s mes­sage. And it’s the am­bi­gu­ity of what Buchanan is try­ing to say, and about whom, that brings us back to the song afresh so many times.

There is even a the­ory abroad that each verse of the song is writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of a dif­fer­ent per­son (yes, this is how se­ri­ously Blue Nile fans take their work). Which re­ally only means that the more we think we know about what the song is about, the less we do.

Give Fam­ily Life a go for your­self. It is the best Christ­mas song ever. I just wish I knew what it was about.

Paul Buchanan: no ho-ho

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