xmas white lies

Given he’s helped write some of the biggest songs by Norway’s biggest band, you’d think A-ha’s Magne Furuholmen would be happy. That his third solo album is a Christmas collection would appear to underline that belief. But White Xmas Lies is anything but cheerful.

Before his opening song, the world-weary There Goes Another Year, has finished, he’s acknowledging “what we say but do not mean/ Every word and in-between”, before winding up “in the darkness of December/ As our letters come returned to sender.” Don’t expect a card this winter.

It’s a mood he maintains almost unceasingly, though White Xmas Lies nevertheless offers glimpses of fairy lights, albeit disguised by a comforting bittersweet melancholy, the kind Radiohead sometimes achieve.

Admittedly, A Punch-Up On Boxing Day’s chiming pianos and mournful melody are more like Coldplay after a rough divorce, but both This Is Now America – whose title and structure pun on David Bowie and Pat Metheny’s 1984 collaboration – and The Season To Be Melancholy, a shuffling tune with cooing backing vocals and acoustic guitars, recall the masterful In Rainbows. That said, the former laments America’s broken dreams, with its “shooting sprees in her school-yard/ Border walls and prison guards” and the nation notably steered by “a monkey at the wheel”. The latter’s title, meanwhile, is self-explanatory, though lines like, “Out comes the Christmas punch/ But you just take it on the chin” drive the point home.

There are, however, also echoes of Pink Floyd in Furuholmen’s vocals, which creak appealingly like Roger Waters’. That’s especially true on Caprice Des Dieux, an acoustic track highlighting a faltering voice that’s nonetheless effectively vulnerable while attempting to “guide a human heart through these trying times”. It’s also evident in the title track’s weightier arrangements – though there he makes room for sleigh bells – and on The Light We Lost, whose stately atmosphere preaches acceptance of failed friendships. At least there’s hearty laughter after the concluding, unsettling Jingle Bells riff.

Elsewhere, there’s admirable, classy songwriting – Tom Waits-style piano ballad So Cold It’s Hard To Think, the lethargic Snow Is Falling, the closing, reconciliatory Come Back Home – which remind us that A-ha are far more than a pretty face. There’s even an extraordinarily raw, sparse cover of AC/DC’s Hells Bells.

Ultimately, White Xmas Lies provides an unexpected but overdue rejoinder to the season’s forced good humour, a refreshing shot of realism designed to address Yuletide’s normally disregarded dark side. Happy Christmas!

8/10

Wyndham Wallace

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