Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues (1987)

The potential minefield that is the Christmas song... Christmas is such a major holiday, such a major event in the lives of people in Western countries that it's easy to imagine the impetus to commemorate it in song. The thing is, of course, that the vast majority of Christmas songs are horrible beastly things that you would never dream of listening to eleven months of the year and only give an ear to on the twelfth because shopping centres and radio stations just won't... stop... playing them.

Oh, but then there's this: by any rational definition the best Christmas song ever, and one of the few that merit playlist inclusion at any time of the year. That is, of course, because it's not really about Christmas, merely set during Christmas. But more to the point, because it's not mawkish, cloying, crass... any of those things Christmas songs tend to be. It's just undoubtedly, undeniably real. In short, it's a tale of two Irish immigrants to New York and their volatile, on-again, off-again relationship. It's about the kind of desperation people feel when they have no real future, and it's about the dignity that maintaining hope in such circumstances engenders. Heavy stuff for a Christmas ditty, but those messy emotions are what drives the song and what makes it so special.

I could have included any of a dozen different Pogues songs here, and maybe eventually I will. Their impact on the 1980s is sadly underappreciated, but their fusion of old and new, of tradition and modernity, and of art and entertainment, was groundbreaking and truly wonderful. The music was exciting or beautiful or often (as is the case here) both. But ultimately it was Shane MacGowan's words, and the voice with which he delivered them, that made them a cut above (I realise not all of the lyrics were written by MacGowan, and in fact my second favourite song about Irish immigrants in New York on If I Should Fall from Grace with God was entirely written by Philip Chevron). This is a hopeless case – a drunk, a gambler, an eternal dreamer. The female role in this duet (sung by the enchanting and sadly long gone Kirsty MacColl, making her incidentally the first person to have two entries in this list) is endlessly frustrated at his shortcomings, yet still able to find comfort in his words. They define dysfunction. All of us know, or perhaps are, a couple like this. Their story has no real resolution, because soon enough she'll realise again that the cold comfort of his words is ultimately empty. She'll try to get out again. He'll pull her back in. It's not his fault: it's much more difficult for men to grow up and give up on their dreams than it is for women. “I could have been someone,” he pines, bitterly. “Well, so could anyone,” she replies, deflating his pronouncements in an instant.

All of this is borne out over a melodic backdrop so light that it carries the listener in the wash of contradictory, bittersweet emotions. The box set Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say... Pogue Mahone contains several early versions of the song, a work-in-progress that show just how much labour went into making it sound so light and free. It takes effort to give the appearance of effortlessness. The takes are interesting because they're so terrible: they're 95% there, yet that extra 5% seems to make such a difference: what makes the song great instead of merely good.

There is a reason this song is so timeless, and it's not because of the naughty-words verse (which I appreciate in its place but consider perhaps the least wonderful part of the song). It's because it's something that Christmas songs almost never are: honest. It cuts to the bone of the mess of emotions that Christmas evokes, and for that reason they'll still be singing it 100 years from now.
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