The following recommendation is going to sound like a joke, but I assure you it is not: If you are feeling incredibly bleak and weary and miserable about life, and no sullen, depressive rock band or cathartic noise record is matching your mood, you should really listen to Susan Boyle’s new Christmas album, The Gift. I spent part of this week trying to write an article about how morbid, detached bands like Salem represent some kind of appealing disengagement with the world, but I was dead wrong. Susan Boyle has them beat. Take her with you into a pit of depression. Her music is perfect for it.
Let me explain. I’m assuming you remember Boyle, the matronly Scottish woman whose demeanor was lightly mocked on Britain’s Got Talent — right up until she took the stage and surprised people by actually … having talent, just like the title promised. Since then she’s gone from a viral-video smash to something like the world’s quaint aunt, the nice older lady people love to hear sing nice old songs. All she had to do was dial her voice back from a stagey belt to something friendlier, something more like a storybook aunt putting children to bed.
Now if you happen to find the music world a little grating — and let’s be honest, lots of normal people do — the storybook aunt is a terrific alternative. The 3 million copies of “I Dream a Dream” Boyle sold in the U.S. last year might even represent a kind of “silent majority” — all those unreformed normal folks for whom “music” is still about a pretty voice, a familiar song, and some nice piano, the kind of thing you wouldn’t feel awkward playing in a church. I assume this is why I saw one website post a Boyle video with a bit of reactionary rhetoric attached: “No distracting dance routines. No cameos from rent-a-rappers. No t**s ‘n’ a**. JUST LOVELY MUSIC.” It’s my belief that this gets at something true: Boyle’s music is terrific for people who are annoyed with everything, or find the world somewhat irritating or distasteful. Susan Boyle offends nothing! Susan Boyle is humble and egoless and actually sounds a little bit wounded and small, as if she’s been struggling silently through the everyday trials of a polite and frumpy Scottish virgin, and if you think that’s been easy or cute then fuck you, you don’t know her soul, etc.
This new album of hers is extremely well conceived, just as a piece of merchandise. For the most part, it has Boyle singing Christmas songs, though not in an overly Christmas-y way. These are calm, reverent takes on lilting carols like “The First Noel,” with acoustic guitar and strings — no fast songs, no hustle and bustle, no sleigh bells. This is not the Christmas of shopping and festivity: It’s the quaint picturebook Christmas of candles and softly singing grandmothers and inner peace. As on Boyle’s first album, there are a couple tunes that act as “hip” modern standards, songs it seems the tiniest bit edgy for Boyle to be singing — Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” the ever-more-obligatory take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” There are hymns, and there’s “Auld Lang Syne,” so you can squeeze a few more weeks out of it after Christmas has passed. Best of all, there’s Boyle’s plaintive rendition of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” an idea so great I would like to personally thank whoever suggested it. (Full disclosure: I am not having the best day, and this song is proving so comforting it’s a little … discomforting.)
Which means that Boyle is not only offering something to those who find modern popular music a bit much, but also to those who find modern Christmas a bit much, and maybe even those who find modern life a bit much. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the album opens with “Perfect Day” — which is not exactly a cheery tune — and that the gooey keyboards behind a lot of the tracks actually sound like something from an old goth record.
The big question about a record like this is always the same one: How much will people who are attached to music — for instance, younger people — groan when someone in the family pulls out the CD on a long car drive, or on the afternoons before Christmas? I can’t vouch for what it would be like to hear this collection twice a day, against your will, for an entire week, because you made the mistake of giving your mom a copy. But I’m pretty sure it would fare well. The music is so minimal and inoffensive that it asks almost nothing of you, and Boyle’s voice is free of personality in a way you can think of as generous: There is nothing on this record that will remotely get between you and the abstract fact of having pretty, peaceful music playing in your house.
See, normally, if I were feeling weary and despairing about life, I would eventually wind up reaching for a record that sounds that way. Something explicitly sullen or grim, pissed-off or noisy. So it comes as a slight surprise to me that this album works better for those moods than almost anything I own. And if you are the kind of person who reads longish online reviews of records, there’s a good chance the same trick will work for you — that nothing will offer you a more total and blissful disengagement from life than wallowing in Susan Boyle singing Christmas songs. Honest: It’s like storming out of your job after lunch, going straight home, and spending the rest of the day in bed.
I suspect that the people who buy and love Boyle’s albums get that. When they say she’s “comforting” or that her voice is “angelic,” they are not just saying her music is idly pleasant; they might mean it serves as a tiny pleasant thing among a whole lot of awful ones. I suspect that the people who assemble Boyle’s records get that, too, and that’s exactly why we’re listening to her sing a song like “Perfect Day” — a song that sounds peaceful, but makes very clear that it’s coming from a place that’s not peaceful at all.