Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Christmas songs don’t have to be novelty songs

In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: We’re kicking off the season with holiday songs we’re not sick of yet.

Badly Drawn Boy, “Donna & Blitzen” (2002)

In Nick Hornby’s About A Boy, the leisurely lifestyle of rakish protagonist/co-narrator Will Freeman is bankrolled by the royalties from an old novelty tune. Will’s dad penned the fictional “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” an empty-headed bit of treacle whose heavy rotation ensures Will can keep boozing, drugging, womanizing, and picking up LPs at the record store from Hornby’s previous novel, High Fidelity. But “Santa’s Super Sleigh” is an albatross that lays golden eggs: Even as it lines his pockets, the spins the song receives every Christmas is a regularly scheduled reminder of his late father, the old man’s failure to write another hit, and the strained relationship that grew from the earth salted by dad’s professional frustrations.

When Hornby’s coming(s) of age story got the big screen treatment in 2002, the bane of Will’s existence was finally given voice, just as drippy and dopey as the pages of About A Boy made it out to be. But “Santa’s Super Sleigh” isn’t the only seasonal selection in the cinematic Will’s pretentiously curated music collection: The film and its accompanying soundtrack album both conclude with “Donna & Blitzen,” an original composition by Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy. Handpicked to score About A Boy à la Simon And Garfunkel and The Graduate, Gough threw the anti-“Santa’s Super Sleigh” into the mix, a longing waltz that stands shoulder to shoulder with “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Last Christmas,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and other classics of Yuletide melancholy.


The third of those songs belongs in any conversation about “Donna & Blitzen,” which follows the long tradition of contemporary musicians swiping a gift out from under Phil Spector’s Christmas tree. But even with its ersatz Wall Of Sound, Gough’s vision of the holiday isn’t as relentless as Spector’s, swapping the chatter of piano triplets for A Christmas Gift For You’s clomping percussion. (The tympani still gets a workout, though.) Most crucially, “Donna & Blitzen” uses its bells and sleighs as a backdrop for everyday emotion, perfect for a movie whose protagonists struggle with feeling too much and/or too little. The song’s imagery is fantastical, but the sentiment is too real, tied up in the romantic little lies we like to tell ourselves as December winds to a close. (“This year is ours,” Gough insists, with all the conviction of the kid who swears he heard hooves clicking on the roof.) It’s not quite apologia for the likes of “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” but it is proof that Santa’s sleigh still has plenty of room for something a little more personal.

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