There is something about the melancholy quality in Tracey Thorn's voice that would seem to make the idea of a Christmas album by her improbable. But Tinsel and Lights is no ordinary Christmas album. It is as singular in its choice of material as Thorn's voice is. Produced by Ewan Pearson (who helmed 2010's Love and Its Opposite), there is only one standard, in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The rest is compiled from material written by more contemporary composers: Randy Newman, Carol Hall, Joni Mitchell, Scritti Politti's Green Gartside, Stephin Merritt, Ron Sexsmith, Low, Jack White, and Sufjan Stevens. Thorn also contributes a pair of fine originals. For Everything But the Girl fans, Ben Watt plays on eight of these 12 cuts. Thorn's opener, "Joy," sets the tone for the album. Backed by her piano, an electric guitar, keyboards, and bass, she lays out the hard truth of Christmas for many: "You loved it as a kid/But now you need it more than you ever did...We'll gather up our fears/And face down all the coming years/And all that they destroy/And in their face we throw our joy...." the toughness of that spirit is more vulnerable in Hall's "Hard Candy Christmas," but it is unwavering. In Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," Thorn draws out what the season is supposed to mean, even in the face of human failings. "In the Cold Cold Night" shifts gears. Thorn strips away the rock histrionics to get at something far more sultry and bold; it generates real adult heat. Gartside makes a duet appearance, but not on his "Snow in Sun." On Low's "Taking Down the Tree," their duet works partly because of the sharp contrast to the original's musical arrangement (though this one is spare too) but also in the way their very different voices get at a lyric that balances sadness and near-instant nostalgia. Thorn wrote the title track, and its time-weathered wisdom is countered by the cheery arrangement. When she sings "Something almost true was in the air," the listener is touched by notions of Christmases past that nearly lived up to their hype. Yet, when she offers the closing lines: "You kissed me in the snow and that was when/I fell in love with Christmas once again," she turns the narrative on its head, ending in hope. In Stevens' sad, gray, "Sister Winter," she sends it off with both an honesty and bravery in the face of loss that echoes the well wishing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Tinsel and Lights is as emotionally complex as any recording in Thorn's or EBTG's catalog. While it is a meditation on Christmas, it makes no attempt to manipulate the listener's feelings. Instead, with its sheer musical quality, and the depth of tenderness and empathy in Thorn's voice, it highlights the season's complexities in the face of everyday life.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek