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I’ve long dreamed to have an Elvis Costello Christmas album
JORGE FARAH: Each year, right around the first week of December, and much to my coworkers’ chagrin, I morph into an insufferable carol-singing cheer machine. When my friends start to bellyache about the season’s gaudy contrivances, I smile and nod empathetically, and then get right back into my month-long state of glee. I am very much that guy, and unapologetically so. I love Christmas. And I especially love Christmas songs; from the shopping-mall nursery rhymes to the old stately hymns. I love the myth and the lore in them, the melodies that can be simultaneously solemn and cheerful. And as a huge Elvis Costello fan who recognizes these very traits in some of his best ballads, I’ve long dreamed to have an Elvis Costello Christmas album. Sadly, Elvis has only really recorded three Christmas (or Christmas-adjacent) songs I can think of: “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In,” a humorous tune about the power of belief (written by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger) recorded with Stephen Colbert for his 2008 Christmas special; “Having It All,” a strongly Cole Porter-influenced ballad written for a movie soundtrack and relegated to bonus track status; and then there’s this caustic little anti-carol.
This is a song about wringing the very last bit of holiday cheer out of the rapidly fading season
“St. Stephen’s Day Murders” was written by Elvis and recorded as a collaboration with long-running traditional Irish group The Chieftains for their 1991 album The Bells of Dublin. It was also included as a bonus track on the Rhino reissue of Elvis’s Mighty Like a Rose, and it fits in beautifully with that album’s brand of ornate bitterness. While it is a decidedly different kind of Christmas song, it’s still just as beautiful and festive in its own way. In classic Costello fashion, the song is not actually about Christmas, exactly, but the immediate aftermath of it; as the title indicates, it takes place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, also known sometimes as Boxing Day. It’s the day where the previous day’s indulgences are to be dealt with, boarded up and cleaned out. It’s also the day where simmering tensions that may have been temporarily quelled by the season’s festivities start to arise, and the quickest way to assuage them is by drowning them in liquor and leftovers. It’s a song about wringing the very last bit of holiday cheer out of the rapidly fading season, lest we actually have to deal with all the resentment we harbor towards our freaky family members. It sounds pretty bleak, but it’s a decidedly lighthearted tune, its Dickensian humor serving as a kind of appetizer for some of the more playfully macabre passages in Elvis’s next project, The Juliet Letters.
So we don’t have an Elvis Costello Christmas album yet, but we have a few scattered treasures like this one. This may not be a song I sing around my beleaguered coworkers very often, but it’s every bit as festive as an eggnog hangover.
It’s, finally, a song about poisoning your relatives
KEVIN DAVIS: Though I suppose “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” isn’t a Christmas song per se (the feast of St. Stephen, while falling within the liturgical season of Christmas, is distinctly its own holiday in many non-American countries), it’s probably the closest thing Elvis Costello has to one. And like “Battered Old Bird” (which we wrote about last week), it is a song defined by its sense of setting – not by its romping uileann pipe accompaniment, not by its occasion of collaboration with one of the great Celtic ensembles to cross over into the mainstream market, not even by the minor detail of it finally being a song about poisoning your relatives. Costello being one of popular music’s great sponges, it’s always sort of surprised me that we didn’t see more musical fruit from his years married to Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, especially when it’s so clear from this song that his capacity for adopting traditional Celtic forms is well within his grasp; indeed, the sense of setting so prevalent in the song is greatly enhanced by the pendulum-like melody in the chorus, so reminiscent of crowded pubs where pints are hoisted aloft and drinking songs fill the air. In coupling these environmental cues with the chaotic family-gathering imagery (“Uncle is gargling a heartbreaking air/While the babe in his arms pulls out all that remains of his hair/And we’re not drunk enough yet to dare criticize/That great big kipper tie he’s about to baptize”), the song brilliantly masks its macabre storyline with an irrepressible joie-de-vivre, such that the unhappy ending of the narrator’s family members ultimately ends up playing second fiddle to the perpetually relatable scene he describes in the moments leading up to the deed.
This is a Christmas song no different than any other, brutal ending and all
The one thing that’s always brought me back to this song, however, is Costello’s vocal performance — a beautiful, multi-faceted delivery that oscillates back and forth from contrived menace to momentary empathy to pure theater. I especially like the way he sounds on the lines that begin the first and third lines of the “chorus” parts: “There’ll be laughter and tears”; “and the carcass of the beast”; “and there’s life in it yet” – in a weird way, the manner in which he sings these lines contains a vague sense of nostalgic longing that is no doubt inconsistent with the lyrical themes in the song but certainly goes hand in hand with the less explicitly stated familial vibe coming off the music. These brief passages completely balance out the rest of the song for me, taking it out of traditional Celtic murder ballad territory and into something less formal and more human. In turn, I find myself thinking of this as a Christmas song no different than any other, brutal ending and all — one that calls to mind the season’s most joyful moments, full of song and laughter and tears and food and drink and ludicrous, comic-book character relatives that we’re happy we only see one day a year.
This isn’t really a Christmas playlist, but there are plenty of presents to be found in our ever-expanding Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week playlist: