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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era