Ghost Stories for Christmas. by Aidan Moffat & RM HubbertRelease date: December 7, 2018
Label: Rock Action
There’s no point me faffing about with an elaborate wrapping to try and disguise its true nature, this obviously CD shaped parcel nestled ‘neath the tree is indeed a Christmas album. Ghost Stories for Christmas is a miscellany of seasonal songs and stories both old and new, a slightly unexpected gift from Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert. Impressively bearded he may be but Moffat has never seemed an expressly Santa like or jolly figure. Following their debut together earlier this year Here Lies The Body it seems they had so much fun working up ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ for a single it grew into a full album.
It opens with the crackle and strum of ‘Fireside’ a scene setting instrumental of soft guitar and even softer violin weaving through the sound of the fire and small children in the background. It ends on a bright flourish that you can imagine leaves those involved smiling broadly at one another and refilling their glasses. This intimate and reflective mood is maintained through the record. Sleigh bells introduce ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ a sigh of lost love or bereavement. It’s the most ‘full band’ sounding moment, elsewhere the instrumentation is a restrained but varied patchwork. ‘Desire Path’ is carried along on nimble programmed beats and ends with some clarinet, while ‘Such Shall You Be’ offers a meditation on mortality over gentle piano.
Warming to their theme there’s a great version of Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ a song I always liked anyway but they strip off the original’s veneer of jokey sentimentality, Moffat’s soft, warm burr bringing real heartache in place of Les Gray’s maudlin Elvis pastiche. They also offer up a cover of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ which formed part of their live set earlier in the year. One of those songs that isn’t really a Christmas song but has become tied to the season. In this case on account of The Flying Pickets acappella version being Christmas number one just a year after the original’s release. So soon and so successful was that version that it has become completely entwined with the song the da-da-da-da vocal rendering of synth lines appearing in subsequent versions including here, underscored by Jenny Reeve’s beautiful violin.
A pared down acoustic version of a beloved 80’s pop hit might look to be sailing into the dangerous waters of nauseating ukulele advertising slop but they hold a steady course. An orchestral re-touch of Yazoo’s version was used last year for a seasonal ad. I missed that but ‘Only You’ is such a great, simple, elegant pop song that it also survived a Kylie version which she inexplicably recorded as a duet with James Corden for her Christmas album. Moffat and Hubbert play to the lyrics strength and bring us an honest, heart sore mumble of lost love, defiance swapped for defeat. It’s a joy at any time of the year.
It’s an annual puzzle to me how even the very idea of Christmas music causes some people to recoil in horror, as if it didn’t run from the sublime to the utterly tacky or wrap it’s tinsel tendrils around every genre imaginable. Perhaps in defiance of this I love Christmas music as a matter of principal despite its disappointments. Every year the first appearance of Low’s ‘Just Like Christmas’ flowing from the speakers in some unlikely location is still surprising and heart warming to me. Wandering dead eyed along the supermarket aisles nodding to ‘Fairytale Of New York’ and noticing that everyone is singing along below their breath, without even thinking, brings a surreal glimmer of the magic of the season. Moffat and Hubby seem to share this affection “It’s Darlene and Maria, and Kirsty and Shane and Noddy and Roy and The Waitresses, my favourite” as Moffat puts it at the end of ‘Weihnachtsstimmung’ a meditation on the intangible essence of Christmas spirit that also gives us the chance to sing smilingly along with a chorus of “We don’t need wise men and virgins”.
The last word is given to the father of modern Christmas, on ‘The Recurrence of Dickens’ Moffat reads from a Dickens essay rebuking the ever present humbuggery that forms a weary counterbalance to any expression of seasonal good cheer. There is not an excess of jollity to be found on this record but while Moffat is always aware of the misery of the world he is not without hope, finding reason to cheer where he can and inviting you to gather about the fire and do like wise, fill your glass, Merry Christmas to you.