1999 was the boom before the bust for Christmas music. The musical landscape morphed into a bitter circus of tears. There were lucid moments amidst the pot smoke — Nirvana crashing the Billboard charts, Lauryn Hill’s heyday, Meatloaf’s role in Spice World — but for a decade that felt like it could have belonged to authentic artists with challenging music and ideas, it ended up in the gold-plated hands of Cher, auto-tuned to hell and back.
Financially, a guaranteed seller was a lukewarm Christmas album from any top-selling pop artist. Love it or hate it, Christmas music was big business in the ’90s and reappeared every year as regularly as the three spirits in A Christmas Carol.
“If you’re not ready for them, Christmas songs kind of force the sentiment,” Alan Sparhawk, guitarist and singer for the Duluth, Minnesota band, Low, says. “Nobody’s going to convince you, if you’re not ready. So it can be very tricky to open yourself up to it.”
Tricky, and patronizing too. Forcing sentiment onto listeners can backfire spectacularly. For more on this, listen to “The Christmas Shoes,” and watch the corresponding TV movie starring Rob Lowe, then read the feel-good novelization. Most artists rarely strike gold with an original Christmas tune; even fewer are likely to try. (In fact, it’s a commonly discouraged exercise.) Artists that do pen original songs walk a fine line between failure and forgetfulness. A poorly executed Christmas song won’t kill your career, but it does cast you into the land of sentimental pap, where so many Christmas albums from the ’90s reside. (N’Sync, 98 Degrees, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, The Flaming Lips, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ren and Stimpy, just to name a few.)
“We knew we were stepping into a live minefield, potentially,” Sparhawk says. “Whether it’s people who just don’t want to listen to [Christmas music] or people who are pretty precious about Christmas music and don’t want to hear some hack indie rock band doing versions of songs.”
But Low are not just any “hack indie rock” band. They are the only “hack indie rock” band whom I would unconditionally trust to record an album of Christmas material.
In November 1999, the band released an EP, eight songs, simply titled Christmas. Christmas allowed Low to stretch their musical boundaries without sacrificing their musical identity, but also established them as a band that were not afraid to embrace a different approach to Christmas — even if that meant exploring overtly religious concepts. But it also offered a glimmer of lightheartedness and hope; the marriage of Low’s musical textures combined with Christmas music offered a small, welcome reprieve from the darker material the band traded in.
“Before we recorded that EP, [Christmas music] was relegated to the comical or the ironic,” Sparhawk says. "But we went in knowing that we wanted it to be cool and to stand on its own. We didn’t really think as much of it at the time, we just thought, ‘this will be fun.’ And I didn’t want to necessarily draw on nostalgia, even though there are some covers. But we decided if we’re going to cover “Little Drummer Boy” it’s going to sound like a mess.”
Only three tracks were covers of Christmas songs: “Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Blue Christmas.” The rest are originals, a treacherous route that was not lost on the band.
“Obviously if you’re going to write Christmas songs, it’s pretty daunting,” Sparhawk says. “You’re working against tradition; a lot of symbolism that’s already been used. It’s hard to find a new way to address that.”
But Low spent much of the ‘90s exploring new ways to address the themes and structures inherent in their music. Low created a sound so minimal and uncharacteristic, it spawned its own short-lived genre: slowcore. Low weren’t the progenitors of slowcore and that sobriquet that has long been abandoned, but they were one of a handful of bands to stretch its fundamentals to the limit. Low’s songs, especially on their first two releases, I Could Live In Hope and Long Division, are down tempo to the point of stasis. They mirror the desolation of Midwestern winters and the feeling of paranoia, anxiety, and dread that accompany a lack of color in the coldest months. Usually, there’s no room for light within Low’s songs; if there is, it’s a blinking fluorescent bulb inside a municipal building.
This unassuming trio from Duluth, Minnesota is not made to be carriers of the Christmas music torch. Yet, they captured the sentiment of Christmas through honesty and sincerity. The EP touched a nerve.
“At the time when it came out we ended up getting a lot more attention than I thought. John Peel really loved it and convinced the daytime DJs on the BBC to play it,” Sparhawk says. "That was a huge. It ended up being something they really loved, especially in England. We didn’t know it would be heard as much as it was; we just wanted to make sure it wasn’t out of line and then figured the rest would carry itself. I think if we knew it was going to be such a big deal, we probably wouldn’t have finished it,” Sparhawk laughs.
Not everyone “got it,” however. Some listeners tried to return the disc claiming that something was wrong with the track, “Little Drummer Boy.”
“Because it’s so digitally distorted, some people thought, ‘hey, there’s something broken on this,’” Sparhawk says. “And that was one of the moments where I thought, ’Yes, I’m glad we did this.’”
Low reinvented what a Christmas album could be — whether through interpretation, arrangement, or willingness to tackle subjects such as taking down the Christmas tree (“Taking Down the Tree”) and the fate of the baby Jesus in present-day (“If You Were Born Today”). And since the EP eschews irony for sincerity, I was curious if Sparhawk believes Christmas music has to be sincere — or even religious — to connect on a personal level.
“No, it can be just anything,” Sparhawk says. “I think anything that taps into the spirit of giving or a moment of pause to consider one’s place. There are songs that are religious and songs that are not and there is a place for all of that. Just like there’s a place for songs about being with your family and going home for Christmas. Of anything in our society, I’m sure there are lots of people who are not Christian who could take Christmas or leave it. But for something that rallies in a universal way, for society to ponder and be a little bit more reflective about life and the passage of time is positive. It’s a message of hope; there is love and there are powerful things in the world. Whether you’re Christian or not the hope is that you kind of contribute to that without being irreverent.”
Low are nothing if not reverent, and contributed a lasting document of Christmas simplicity in a decade of excess and insincerity. Sixteen years later, Christmas is one of the band’s most popular releases and a beacon of distinction among the Christmas detritus. An album that resonates bigger and brighter every year.
Christmas Music Bonus Round with Alan Sparhawk
Favorite Christmas song: “I like ‘Little Drummer Boy.’ But I have this old Jim Nabors Christmas LP. He had a really unusual, unique, but beautiful voice. I take that one every Christmas; it puts me back in touch with the weird possibilities of music.”
Least favorite Christmas song: "Oh man. [Mimi] (Alan’s wife and band member) and I go back and forth about Amy Grant. She loves it and plays it a lot. I tolerate it. I mean, Amy Grant’s great and that’s a really pure effort that she made. And she brought a lot of really nice things to people, but for some reason when I hear that I just think, “Oh man, there’s go to be something else.” (Laughs)