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