Xmas time is here
With Christmas swiftly looming, it seems appropriate to cast an eye over an album that draws heavily from that theme. In this instance, it’s White Xmas Lies, the latest solo offering from Magne Furuholmen.
Better known as one third of Norwegian mood merchants a-ha, Furuholmen gets an opportunity to explore a collection of tunes that are less decking the halls with boughs of holly, more a critical analysis of the way the season has been almost completely subsumed by materialism.
“I am lucky to have a family around me” commented Furuholmen on the album, “but for many people, Christmas is a rough time, and a harsh reminder of loss, longing, and crippling loneliness. I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.”
It’s a sentiment that Furuholmen also picked on for a recent interview with Rolling Stone, in which he discussed “this incredible race to empty the rituals completely and transform them into a materialistic suicide.”
The result is an album that offers up musings not only on Christmas, but also the passage of time, war, politics (and even a song originally inspired by cheese!). It’s a collection of songs that have a bittersweet feel to them and, even by a-ha’s standards, offer up a bleakness with little in the way of festive cheer. It’s a theme reflected in song titles such as ‘The Season To Be Melancholy’, while the album’s title track presents a suitably cynical view of Christmas (“We sing cheesy songs”).
Despite the downbeat approach, it would be a mistake to categorise White Xmas Lies as simply a reverie in depression. Furuholmen still has a talent for arrangement and melody as well as a wry eye for humour (even if it takes on a darker aspect here).
Opening with ‘There Goes Another Year’ (which, oddly, comes across as a chillier take on Randy Crawford’s ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’), the song takes a reflective look at how Christmas is a marker for time. “As the fire turned from spark to ember”, for instance, offers an effective turn of phrase for growing older.
There’s a warm use of strings on ‘The Light We Lost’ which lyrically touches on the loss of friendship – and also offers up more wordplay on the passage of time (“Summer fades to winter”).
‘A Punch-Up On Boxing Day’ shows that Furuholmen can’t resist a good play on words. Here, the icy melodies and sturdy percussion cast a backdrop for the usual family drama of the Christmas period in which everything is a “Song and dance” and “There’s always a price to pay”.
‘This Is Now America’ throws a nod to Radiohead’s own particular flavour of melancholia. Here, the discovery of a girl’s lost diary offers a lyrical narrative on the lost promises of the past measured against the more harsher aspects of contemporary America. It’s a composition that gives up a fairly transparent commentary via verses such as:
No bridge across divides
A drunken joyride
With a monkey at the wheel
The album also features several intriguing choices for cover versions, including Magne’s unusual take on AC/DC’s ‘Hells Bells’ and a suitably festive take on The Kinks’ ‘Father Christmas’ (itself a pointed comical commentary on Christmas).
Also lurking in the depths of the album is ‘Differences’, originally an a-ha song that emerged during the sessions for the Lifelines album. Penned as a response to the brutality of the Taliban regime (and performed live during the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in December 2001), the song has a surprisingly upbeat arrangement.
Elsewhere, there’s an unsurprisingly moodier aspect to ‘Dark Days, Dark Nights’ with its sober piano tones. Furuholmen is being less obscure here lyrically with some blunt commentary on modern culture (“We take pride in what we’re faking”).
‘Caprice Des Dieux’, the aforementioned cheese-related song, seems to bring to mind the a-ha track ‘White Dwarf’ (from 2005’s Analogue album). It’s a simpler affair than the other tracks on the album, dominated initially by acoustic guitar and a more fragile vocal from Furuholmen. The composition builds up layers to deliver a bigger, bolder mid-section and overall it’s reminiscent of The Flaming Lips – a comparison that comes over on other tracks as well, such as the vulnerable ‘A Wintry Silence’ or the big orchestral sweep of ‘So Cold It’s Hard To Think’.
Those that find favour in the more mature sound of a-ha’s later catalogue will be on familiar ground with White Xmas Lies. The album could probably have benefitted from some culling of the final track listing (even TR/ST edited down The Destroyer into two releases) as White Xmas Lies is a lengthy journey to embark on (despite being billed as a double album).
Magne sums up his wishes for the album’s effect in some commentary on the sleeve notes, wisely noting that “Music and art connect us in ways we had never imagined.” It’s an apt statement, which perhaps also reflects a little on the themes of the festive season itself.
White Xmas Lies is out now.