Label: Epitaph Records
Youtube stream: Link
The very idea of Christmas music puts me on edge, and not in a good way. I hate almost all of it. My place of work last year played nothing but Christmas songs all throughout December. After each of my shifts finished, I felt like I had lost some core part of myself, like a section of my brain had withered and died, never to return. All thanks to 8 hours of songs expressing joy over the birth of Christ, singers wishing for all manner of things (white Christmases, to be home, even to be a polar bear), and rampant commercialism.
So, when Bad Religion announced an album of Christmas songs, I was not optimistic at all. The idea of this most respected and talented of punk bands covering Christmas hits did not appeal to me at all. It’s an idea more suited to the “Punk Goes Pop” brigade – “Look how clever and subversive we are, covering all these popular songs whilst being a PUNK BAND! Yeah!” It’s the kind of move that can kill my faith in a band; but after almost 35 years in existence, and given that they’ve always followed their own path, remained true to their ideals and message, and never released a bad album, I was willing to cut Bad Religion some slack (and a little background research shows that they’ve covered Christmas songs at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas Shows before, so any serious criticism seems a bit redundant and after-the-fact, frankly). If any punk band today has earned the right to have some god-damned fun (no pun intended), then it’s Bad Religion. And despite any apprehension, to write anything off without giving it a listen is pretty foolish. Furthermore, 20% of proceeds are going to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), making it hard to argue against the existence of this record – and it gets even more interesting when you consider the band member’s own religious views.
But enough of that. What about the music?
The first plus point is the songs the band have chosen to cover. Rather than the Christmas songs that usually get played in shopping centres and over TV commercials, they have mostly gone for more traditional carols or older Christmas songs. And speaking as someone who inherently dislikes Christmas music, they’ve made them sound good. Which is to say, they made them sound like Bad Religion. In case that doesn’t mean much to you, it means there’s lots of melody in the guitars and solos, subtle flashes of brilliance from the rhythm section (some of the bass-work on Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is incredible), and the band’s trademark three-part vocal “oozin’ aahs” are present and accounted for. The latter have long been Bad Religion’s not-so secret weapon and arguably their strongest point, and they suit the songs here perfectly – just listen to O Come All Ye Faithful, with the vocals building up on the choruses and interweaving during the verses. It’s absolutely stunning.
Musically, they play the songs pretty straight – or at least, as straight as a punk band can when tackling songs of this ilk. The closest thing to a surprise during the covers is their version of White Christmas, which musically is a dead ringer for The Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated. Which is, of course, the joke. It’s no bad thing though, and sounds like a respectful homage rather than an absence of ideas.
The only thing that can be viewed as a mis-step is the inclusion of an alternative version of one of the band’s own songs. Whilst American Jesus, originally from Recipe For Hate, is a fine enough song on its own terms, it seems out of place here. The tone of the song, both musically and lyrically, is so much darker to what precedes it that it can’t help but sound like quite a sinister downer in comparison. Though perhaps that’s the point. There’s inevitably a desire to read intentions into a release of this nature by a band as overtly political and socially aware as Bad Religion, and given how straight the band play the covers – and how much fun it sounds like they have doing so – then it almost follows that including one of their own songs on the album will be viewed as a “statement”.
To reiterate: I hate Christmas music. Yet I find myself not just listening to this album, but enjoying it. The song selection is inspired, and the covers sound utterly natural and unforced, with the band making them their own. Perhaps that’s what makes it work – there’s enough of the band’s trademarks here to have the songs fit in well enough with the rest of the Bad Religion back catalogue. Essentially, they’ve kept the original song structures and lyrics whilst still making them in to Bad Religion songs. That the closing, original track jars slightly is more down to the specific song itself – it lacks the bright melodies and structures of the preceding songs, and the shift in musical tone seems like a step too far to really work. This is a relatively minor complaint though, and it’s perhaps worth noting that without it, the record would only be 16 minutes long. But this track aside, it’s a brief blast of fun Christmas covers that only the most sour Grinch – or un-fun punk – would argue against.