Christmas albums are a weird thing. In the record-selling industry of 2017, they’re one of the only things that actually sells. The reasons for this are as predictable as they are kind of hard to understand. The national mania for Christmastime is something that necessitates its own sub-branch of the secondary parts of the music industry , and it is apparently lucrative to represent a draw to a certain kind of pop star. This year alone, country stalwart and putative Sexiest Man Alive Blake Shelton, former child-pop-sensations turned servicable power-pop mainstays Hanson, and, in our focus today, Australian weirdo songwriter and occasional pop star Sia have all made bids to enter this field.
Money aside, the other focal truth about Christmas albums is that they’re kind of a double-edged sword. Christmas music is something people have an appetite for, but the existing set of Christmas songs is pretty boring. Everybody has heard them all dozens of times a year, and new entrants into the “played all the time every year” canon are pretty few and far between. So you have a couple of options, as a Christmas-album maker. The more common route is to spiff up some of the standards, write a few Christmas-esque originals, and never really think about it again . Occasionally, however, someone jumps in with an album entirely of originals, which makes it interesting to consider as an extension of someone’s work. That brings us to Sia.
Sia is an unlikely choice for “album full of Christmas songs”, primarily because as a songwriter, she’s a classic miserablist. She’s made her career, as a performer and as a songwriter, on the back of being a dab hand at the art of the soaring saddo ballad. While certainly there is no shortage of sad Christmas songs, they tend to be more of the bittersweet, introspective type. Nobody, in short, is swinging from chandeliers to hide the pain of being an essentially-empty drugged-out lonely person in Christmas songs. That surprise could work to Sia’s advantage – after all, there’s an even shot that she contains the sort of multitudes that would yield something that makes people want to snog and sip nog around the yule log.
Spoiler alert: she might contain multitudes, but nothing on this record would appear to readily yield to -og words of any description.
Although it is fair to say that, while her primary authorial tone does make it seem mighty unlikely that she would yield a great Christmas album, it is not the thing that stands in her way. Part of the problem is that despite her assertion that she “thought we had a bit of a shortage of good Christmas music” , there’s very little on the album to indicate she has any feelings about it one way or the other. She says all the words you’d expect to find on a Christmas album, but none of it really ever comes together.
When I say that none of it comes together, I mean that pretty much as a totality. The album, which was created, like all of her other albums, in collaboration with Greg Kurstin , so one can assume that it was constructed under usual working methods for both folks involved. It just so happens that these methods do not, in fact, work very well for Christmas music.
For starters, the whole album seems to have no idea what it’s doing, sonically. There’s jingle bells and hand bells and all sorts of other kinds of bells, real and imaginary, and the whole thing has a general head-rush overblown quality that is pretty common to contemporary Christmas music. It is sort of filtered through Sia’s customary hugeness – every song, even the treacly piano ballads “Underneath the Christmas Lights” and “Snowflake”, is pitched to the cheap seats, which makes the album exhausting, even at only 35 minutes.
There seem to be a couple of attempts to marry the Generalized Christmas Spirit to Sia-standard regret porn, but the attempts are halfhearted. The aforementioned “Snowflake” seems to be about having some sort of romantic involvement simply because it’s Christmas, the time for romance (?!), and there appear to be some pseudo-sexual undertones to “Snowman” and a couple of references to Santa that really make me question some things , but it doesn’t really fit the whole thing very well, and the record is better off (for whatever standard of “better off” could possibly apply to this) when it sticks to the sort of essential Christmas stuff.
Ultimately, it’s the fact that she seems to have genuinely been going for a fresh new take on Christmas – the songs seem to be honestly considered, even if they are garbage – that hurts this the most. Most Christmas albums are cursory affairs, with very few ideas, and dashed-off originals. They’re the musical equivalent of those pinecones they sell in grocery stores that are soaked in some kind of nightmare hellscape of cinnamon oil: they bear some resemblance to what you think you want in the first place, but it’s all so half-assed that you wonder what can be done. By contrast, perhaps the only good thing I can say about this Sia album is that, even if it’s mindlessly inconsequential, it is at least whole-assedly so.
So we come to the question: who the fuck listens to this? I guess if you love Sia as much as you love Christmas, you might be interested. Generally speaking, however, most of what is celebrated at Christmastime has its roots in tradition, in the repetition of things that were done in years previous. Certainly not for every person, and certainly not every time, but Christmas is a season of “favorites” and comforting sameness. This is, in all likelihood, why Christmas music is whatever portion of an industry that it is: there’s an appetite for the songs themselves, but of course even a “definitive” version would come up short eventually, even if just through sheer repetition . That said, it’s not impossible for new songs to enter the Christmas canon , so I suppose there could be some utility in trying to be the one that does it. But as far as listening goes? I couldn’t tell you. There’s not much Christmas utility here, and the songs are largely outside of Sia’s mien, so they aren’t very satisfying in that sense either.
All of that said, if what you want is Christmas music, and you want it to be performed by people who really mean it, and you want good and worthwhile and new additions to your Christmas repertoire, I must guide you to Low’s superlative EP Christmas, which has a handful of your more traditional cuts (including the best-ever version of “Blue Christmas”), and two of Low’s actual best songs – “If You Were Born Today”, which is actually, literally about Jesus, and “Taking Down the Tree,” which does miserable and Christmas way better than anything on this infernally stupid Sia album.