For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays.
It started in early January, when I was 9. My father took down the Christmas lights from my window, leaving behind a tiny sliver of tape. Each night as moonlight pierced it, I’d contemplate the tape as I drifted to sleep, overcome by the realization that Christmas was over and next year’s was so far away. “Why?” I’d wonder to the streetlights outside my window, did Christmas morning slip by so fast and the rest of the year go so agonizingly slow? Years passed, and with each one came the realization that Christmas was more and more different than it was when that tape was first applied. The magic was melting, and the ecstasy that once swirled like so much fresh blown snow turned as cruddy as roadside slush. A part of me began to resent it. All of it. I was 13 when I finally scraped the tape away with the tip of my finger.
It’s no wonder, then, that I found myself drawn to alternative Christmas songs, ennui-soaked tunes that smashed every red and green ornament in sight. There’s Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card For A Hooker In Minneapolis,” even Blink-182’s ridiculous “Won’t Be Home For Christmas.” None, however, cut through the ice quite like the music of Owen Ashworth, a Chicago-based songwriter whose work frequently delves into the holiday’s darker corners, whether with the now-defunct indietronica outfit Casiotone For The Painfully Alone or in his recent output, which he records under the name Advance Base.
As with the aforementioned songs, listeners won’t find reindeer, glad tidings, or piping cups of hot cocoa in Ashworth’s lyrics. Rather, his songs follow aimless twentysomethings, lonely housewives, and troubled siblings as they trudge through the slush, undone by the weight of expectation and the hope for a better year ahead. Anchoring it all is Ashworth’s instrument of choice: a Rhodes electric piano that often rings with the cold, clanging sound of church bells on Christmas eve, a sound that, like the holiday itself, carries certain connotations.
“Christmas is a real easy shortcut to a lot of real heavy feelings,” Ashworth tells me as he traverses a cold Chicago sidewalk. He recalls the sea change his childhood underwent after his parents took a more focused interest in Christianity. “Somewhat suddenly,” a towering tree accompanied wreaths and scented candles in his house, and his mom sang in the church choir. Choral music, his father’s favorite, became commonplace not just during the holidays but year round.
“Christmas music,” Ashworth says, “has been a big influence on all of my music.” A cursory listen of his catalog—even his early, tape-hissed demos—makes this clear: Reworked for an orchestra, the lilting, effervescent melodies wouldn’t sound out of place at a high school band recital. Beneath all that fuzz and lyrical grit, Ashworth’s arrangements are just as melodic and accessible as anything on the White Christmas soundtrack.
But back to those “heavy feelings.” What feelings? Take your pick, from the good to the sad: love, hope, charity, loneliness, desperation, fear. What binds them all together is a word that surfaced several times in my discussion with Ashworth: expectation. Christmas brings with it certain feelings, events, and traditions, prompted by childhoods, Hollywood, and Happy Meals. It’s the arrival or absence of them that determines so much of our emotional state around the holidays. Ashworth understands this, allowing it to serve as an emotional anchor for each of his Christmas songs.
In “Traveling Salesman’s Young Wife Home Alone On Christmas In Montpelier, VT,” a track from Vs. Children, Ashworth’s last album as Casiotone, we follow a young wife as she wonders naively why her workhorse husband would rather spend Christmas in motels than at home. In the end, it’s revealed a baby is on the way, something our narrator hopes will keep her husband off the road and, though she’d never say it, save their marriage. Ashworth never needs to use the words “lonely” or “desperate”; rather, he lets the advent calendar hanging in the “shuttered windows” do it for him. Christmas is supposed to be about family, after all. No one wants to count the days alone.
So much of Ashworth’s subtext comes through in his voice, a low-pitched and sonorous instrument that, even in his most spritely moments, wears a layer of frost. “Hey, the night is cold,” he sings on “To My Mr. Smith,” “and that jacket’s so old that the chill comes in through the holes.” Coldness, both literal and figurative, is a recurring theme in these songs. Even the artwork for Casiotone’s 2003 album Twinkle Echo depicts a young woman exhaling a billow of frosty breath, nothing behind her but two barren trees. The figures in his songs, often young and disillusioned, are frequently shivering, a metaphor for how emotional iciness is sometimes the only way to heal life’s bruises.
“Cold White Christmas” is another such song, with chiming Rhodes piano underscoring the story of a 22-year-old whose post-collegiate aspirations are crushed by poverty, aimlessness, and a job flipping burgers. “And you linger at the twinkle lights as you pass by the mall,” Ashworth sings, “and count the days to a cold, white Christmas in St. Paul.” Stuck in that space between childhood and adulthood, the subject of “Cold White Christmas” alternates between nostalgia for simpler times (“Home is a photograph you tape to your wall.”) and the desire to persevere beyond them in a city that’s “just as bare and mean as the winter trees.”
Like the young wife of Montpelier, the subject of “Cold White Christmas” longs for family on the holiday. Unlike the young wife, however, she’s too ashamed—of her apartment, her job, her perceived failure—to seek connection with anybody. “You’ll be damned if you’re the one making collect calls,” Ashworth sings, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel the same way when I moved to Chicago six years ago. Eventually, expectations undo us all.
Allusions to the holidays echo throughout Ashworth’s catalog. “New Year’s Kiss” conveys coldness without ever mentioning the weather, its icy beats helping to crush a young woman’s idea of romance after an empty December 31st hook-up. “Man O’ War” finds a child mourning her dead father through photos taken on some bygone Christmas morning. “To stay the same, to never change,” Ashworth sings on “White Jetta,” conjuring not just Jesus Christ’s most appealing trait, but also the wish we all have for our childhood’s sense of awe.
It’s perhaps surprising, considering his melancholic tone, that Ashworth has mostly fond feelings for the holidays, especially now that he has children of his own. “I still enjoy seeing Christmas decorations,” he says. “I can appreciate the spectacle of light.”
He recalls only a single Christmas where he wasn’t with family, an experience he recounts in “Christmas In Oakland,” an Advance Base song he describes as the most autobiographical of his Christmas repertoire. “I was living in Berkeley,” he says, “and it was just nice weather all through the holidays. It didn’t feel like a holiday at all.”
Place, if it’s not clear from his titles, is integral to Ashworth’s music. “Christmas is such a different experience depending on where in the country you are.” Montpelier conjures the kind of northeastern majesty that might be suffocating were you alone in it; St. Paul is a cold but glittering consumerist hub; Oakland is warm and sunny, which, for a midwesterner used to blankets of snow, changes everything.
That’s certainly how it feels for the figures in “Christmas In Oakland.” Between bicycle rides, cigarettes, and a trip to the movies, they get nostalgic for gingerbread houses and “St. Nick’s with buckets.” Tucked away in an apartment, however, they find solace in each other: “With stars in our eyes, lying on mattress springs, we were beaming.”
It’s not only his most beautiful Christmas song, it’s his most wistful. It’s also the first of what has the potential to be a subset of songs akin to The Mountain Goats’ “Going To” series. There are two new Christmas songs in Ashworth’s repertoire that may or may not appear on his forthcoming Advance Base album, due this spring. One, “Christmas In Milwaukee,” he’s been playing live for a few years now. The other, “Christmas In Detroit,” he admits might be “scrapped for parts.”
With the holidays in full swing, Ashworth and I briefly discuss Christmas decorations. He plans on putting lights up the following weekend. At 3, his oldest daughter is for the first time “feeling it and getting excited” for Christmas. “[She’s] been sitting up, just looking out her window when she goes to bed at night, just looking at all the Christmas lights.”
I remember doing the same as a child. And the way I’d run through every room in the house after sunset, plugging in the squares of rainbow light that adorned every window of our suburban, Detroit household. It was a nightly tradition I savored, and the thought of it today brings with it a wave of melancholy. But if there’s anything I’ve gathered from Ashworth’s Christmas songs, it’s that melancholy doesn’t have to be miserable. Heavy as they can be, tough as they can be, these songs are everything but miserable.
Loneliness, hope, desperation, charity, fear, love. Heavy feelings, all bundled into a sliver of tape on my bedroom window. I used to resent it, but good memories should never breed resentment. Melancholy, yes. Nostalgia, too. But never resentment.