The Phil Spector Christmas album is the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Not for me the party songs. Come, listen to the clanging chimes of doom!

Is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”?

The true reward of making a Christmas album lies in becoming part of people’s annual traditions. I released Tinsel and Lights in 2012, so this will be its third outing on the festive turntable, and I am already getting tweets telling me that it has been fetched out of the box in the loft, along with the actual tinsel – all scruffy with bits of Sellotape that fixed it to someone’s bedroom wall last year. It’s a time when many of us like everything to be unchanging; we play the same records to accompany the same moments, and their resonance deepens with each passing year. After we’d emptied our stockings, my mum would faithfully stick on her green vinyl seven-inch of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, and we’d all groan, the groaning being half the fun. Later, I discovered the Phil Spector Christmas album and it provided the soundtrack to my present-wrapping, the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Audible glitter.

Actually making a Christmas record is an odd business, in that you have to start in the spring. So as one new year got under way, I compiled a tracklist of not strictly Christmas songs, but any that referenced winter, or ice, or just cold weather. The lovely melancholy of Harry Nilsson’s “Snow” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” encapsulated the mood I wanted to strike. Not for me a compilation of party bangers, but a collection of seasonally appropriate gloom. During the recording, the producer Ewan Pearson and I cheerfully gave it the working title The Clanging Chimes of Doom, though one or two songs proved too miserable even for me. For instance, Janis Ian’s “In the Winter”, where a lyric about freezing with a broken heater – being so lonely you call Dial-a-Prayer just to hear a voice, and bumping into your ex’s new “friend” – ends with the punchline, “I’ll live alone forever!” Wonderful stuff, properly festive.

Talking of the Clanging Chimes of Doom, is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s? It seems to get more and more stick every time it’s released, poor song, particularly the line that was originally roared by Bono, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” which I saw recently described as the worst line ever written.

I’ll come clean – I think it’s a good line. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a nice line, or a nice thought. It doesn’t make me feel good, and it doesn’t make the singer look good, which is perhaps why Bono was apparently reluctant to sing it. We always assume that singers believe every word they sing: he might have worried that people would for ever identify him with this ignoble sentiment. But it seems to me to contain a kernel of horrible truth, which we’d rather deny – that if something awful has to happen, if someone has to get it in the neck, we’d rather it wasn’t us, fearful, flawed creatures that we are.

It has always reminded me of the torture scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Winston Smith is finally broken, by the imminent threat of his worst nightmare being visited upon him, he pleads not just for mercy, but for it to be done to Julia instead – “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me!” We seem to take for granted that someone has to suffer; we just plead for it to be someone else. In that howl of Bono’s, the Band Aid song deliberately undermines all its good cheer, letting in the shade and banishing light. Lovely and Christmassy.

We can’t take too much of it, though. Indeed, it seems we can’t take that line at all any more – it has been edited out from this year’s version of the song. A little reality at Christmas goes a long way; we need to temper it with hope, dreams, fantasy. Everyone knows that I love sad songs, but only Ben knows me well enough to have stuffed the Michael Bublé Christmas album into my stocking a couple of years ago, leading to a new tradition now where I happily potter around the kitchen on Christmas morning, cooking and singing, in a glow of bubbly and Bublé, while everyone else groans, the groaning being half the fun.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue