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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I don't even believe in God – so I was surprised to find myself caring so much about The Young Pope

The Young Pope stars Jude Law as a pious yet sensuous pontiff. Even so, I didn't expect it to matter me whether or not the character believes.

In The Young Pope – made largely in Europe, sold around the world and broadcast here on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 9pm) – the chiselled dude in question is not even remotely a moderniser. It’s 2016 or thereabouts and his elevation has come as a surprise (is it the result of skulduggery or a miracle?) even to the cardinals who elected him. Yet contrary to the expectations raised by his relatively tight, fortysomething bum and the Cherry Coke Zero with which he begins each day, this pontiff does not believe that priests should be free to marry or nuns permitted to take Mass; liberation theology is just so much muck on the soles of his red leather slippers.

Such traditionalism might once have flagged a dirty secret – a woman on the side, perhaps, or even a man – but Pius XIII (Jude Law) stinks of cigarette smoke, not hypocrisy (his cigarettes are kept in a velvet pouch, with an ingenious ashtray that resembles a pocket watch). Oh, but he is bloodless. “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything,” he says in the confessional, not even bothering to whisper.

What autocratic piety, and how it speaks to our strange and conservative times – the age of Isis, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – though here it comes with a subversively ambiguous sex appeal. One minute, the Vatican’s female head of marketing is trembling excitedly at the Holy Father’s financially suicidal pronouncement that his image will not appear on any merchandise. The next, we watch as he awaits the arrival of a helicopter, his zucchetto held in place by a wide-brimmed hat so camp that it might have come straight from the wardrobe of Quentin Crisp.

When he rails at the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square, accusing them in his first homily of having moved too far from God, it’s at once uncomfortable and thrilling. Even as you want to run away, you long to kiss his ring. What to make of all this? In liberal circles, as Tony Blair discovered, Catholicism is deemed beyond the pale. Yet here it is, disguised as an Armani ad, its internal debates played out wittily and compellingly by one fine actor after another.

My feelings about it are strong. The work of the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it couldn’t be more to my taste if I’d written it myself. Theatrically grand to the point of being overblown, it is also clever, witty, mysterious, provocative, surreal and occasionally silly. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and nothing in it is wholly expected, from the sight of Diane Keaton in a wimple (she plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphan pope and has rushed to Rome to be by his side) to the singular logistics of the Apostolic Palace (beneath Pius’s desk is a green button, there to be pressed whenever he’s had enough of a visitor, at which point a novice rushes in and announces that it’s time for his “snack”). In episode two (aired 27 October), a kangaroo appears, as mesmerised by the Holy Father as any animal ever was by St Francis, and we catch sight of Keaton in her nightwear: a slogan T-shirt that pokes saucy fun at her marriage to God.

Law, putting in his best performance since he starred as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, is magnificent: charming, cruel, unknowable, mannequin-like in his watered-silk vestments. His sheer poise! He uses it like a sacrament. To my surprise, I find that the question of whether or not Pius believes in God – impossible to tell, so far, though he is certainly having trouble hearing Him – matters to me (I’m surprised because I don’t believe in Him).

Law, however, is pretty close to being upstaged by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who plays Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s shifty, oleaginous and thoroughly institutionalised secretary of state. Voiello’s only confessed sin so far involves his lustful obsession with the tiny but voluptuous statue the Venus of Willendorf – but he may soon have to commit all manner of holy misdeeds if he is to save the Church from what he regards as Pius’s remorseless and ­brutal literalism. Unless, that is, its salvation should lie in such intransigence. And if Sorrentino intends to be truly subversive, this is the daring direction in which he will go. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage