Review Summary: All is calm, but not everything is bright.
There’s a spiritual element to the holiday season that goes beyond the obvious religious implications. Even within the secular modernity of it all, there’s a palpable energy harnessed through communal traditions. While most of this energy is well-meaning and benevolent, there’s also a dark side that we too often fail to acknowledge. A blatant example is the sort of commercial greed and materialism which results in someone getting trampled for the “hot item” of the year. The holiday season can also be a moment of dread for many folks because they can’t afford canned vegetables for their family, let alone a plump turkey or lavish gifts. Others fear being home from school or work because it means facing an abusive parent or spouse for an extended period of time with no means of escape. So no, the “holiday spirit” isn’t just that warm, fuzzy feeling you get while sipping hot cocoa and decorating your tree. Behind all of the carols and dazzling lights, there’s a lot of pain and suffering that comes with the holidays.
Phoebe Bridgers’ first holiday compilation captures that. It’s a spooky little EP, where routine covers like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ are belied by ghostly humming and spectral acoustics, while other selections – such as the title track (a cover of Merle Haggard’s 1973 classic) or Phoebe’s re-imagining of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘7 O’Clock News/Silent Night’ – are downright depressing. The former is strikingly relevant today, singing of unemployment and shattered Christmas dreams: “Got laid off at the factory” / “…And my little girl don't understand why we can't afford no Christmas here.” On the latter, Bridgers is joined by Fiona Apple in singing ‘Silent Night’ while The National’s Matt Berninger reads several news headlines, including Trump’s impeachment hearings, abortion law in Louisiana, the Sackler family, police officer Amber Geiger, and the first all-female spacewalk (for improved context, the cover was released as a single in 2019). The closest the EP comes to breaking free from its own eerie fog is ‘Christmas Song’, where Phoebe teams up with Jackson Browne for a gorgeous duet, but even then the content remains somber: “You don't have to be alone to be lonesome…The sadness comes crashin' like a brick through the window, and it's Christmas so no one can fix it.” In short, If We Make It Through December
isn’t your typical collection of cheerful holiday jams. It captures a lot of negative emotions, from isolation to unemployment to political divides. The uncomfortable truth is that all of these things are just as much a part of Christmas as the snowmen and candy canes. It’s just the darker side that we sweep under the rug, as we put on masks and act like everything is fine.