Low’s Christmas tree is a simple one, with eight plain wooden baubles. The band write four tracks themselves, offer interpretations of two carols and crooners’ favourite “Blue Christmas”, and nobody’s bothered to take credit for “Taking Down The Tree” (but it sounds like one of Low’s own). The record is packaged – beautifully – like a very plain, precious card, steeped in a quiet sense of occasion. Low have won half the battle before you’ve even unsleeved the CD.
Certain strands of Alternative music and certain strands of post-Reformation Christianity have in common an occasional appreciation for starkness, and a reflexive distaste for vulgar and worldly ornament. Low, with their professed Mormon faith and the slow, stern but compassionate guitar music they make, bring the strands together, which explains why they’ve become the Christian Rock it’s OK to like. You can tell that they’ve this in part because nobody ever calls them Christian Rock, and of course it’s a glib label, but a song like “If You Were Born Today” smoulders with faith, and is as sacral a track as you’re likely to hear outside Church.
I’d bet, though, that most of the lo-fi afficionnadoes who seem to make up Low’s audience aren’t Christians. No reason they should be, but I also think Low’s religiosity, or rather the traits in their music that seem to match best with it, is a key to their appeal. An analogy might be the way so many of the faithless philosopher-types I know have ended up falling hard for Christian girls, though perhaps missing out on the daily struggles and banalities of their religious belief in favour of projecting onto them images of purity or rigour. The way Low play with hush and awe inspires humility in the alternative breast, and in Low’s self-sufficiency sweet echoes can be found of the indie fan’s own quest for self-definition away from the mainstream. Low are very much the right sort of Christians for alt.appeal, in other words – none of that evangelical fuss or High Art decadence to frighten the horses.
The above should be read with eyebrow firmly raised – still though, Low are Christians who work in a generally anti-religious musical environment, and that fact deserves comment. But that also makes them, in theory, the perfect group to strip back the Christmas album to its numinous basics, and yes, Christmas goes some way to doing this. Its least satisfying tracks, though, are the most traditionally seasonal: the readings of “Silent Night” and “Little Drummer Boy” are spartan and ancient, their low amp hum swathing the familiar songs in an unfamiliar dread. But familiarity wins out: these tunes we’ve known from childhood are too strong and fixed, and it’s only if I concentrate very hard that I can hear Low’s versions as anything but novelties.
When listening to “Silent Night”, in fact, I realise I’d much rather be hearing Phil Spector’s ridiculous version, creepily avuncular ‘special message’ and all. The Christmas songs I want to hear are the dumb old songs played in the dumb old ways, as larded with wide-eyed weepy kitsch as you like. That’s because for me, Christmas is still special not as a peaceful or sacred festival, but as a once-a-year revel in family sentimentality and personal continuity. Low’s Christmas is a record I can appreciate, but as a ‘Christmas record’, I could never love it.
That said there are three magnificent tracks here which justify the very reasonable asking price. “Just Like Christmas” sees Low take off their stabilisers and wobble clumsily up to something like normal rock speed, and with its jaunty, effective, badly recorded rhythms it’s immensely endearing. “Taking Down The Tree” illuminates a part of the Christmas experience new to popular song, capturing the fragility and sadness of early January in two spooked minutes. And on “Blue Christmas”, Low take a standard and trawl its depths, dragging up a rich, poised performance which ends up not only stylish and definitive, but a perfect summation of the band’s stubborn and considerable charm. On the inside of the CD sleeve, Low write this: “Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you.” I’d be delighted. Merry Christmas.