The lyrics in this song work so well because of their simple understatement. As in the title, the single word “Christmas” is repeated by the background choir to begin each line of the song. Darlene Love then describes, in the briefest of sketches, familiar elements of Christmas: “The snow’s coming down,” “Lots of people around,” “Pretty lights on the trees,” etc. Each verse ends with the same line: “(Christmas) Baby, Please Come Home!”
The chorus fills in the sketchiest of details.
They’re singing “Deck the Halls,”
But it’s not like Christmas at all,
’Cause I remember when you were here,
And all the fun we had last year!
And that’s all we’re told really. Boy and girl together last Christmas. Boy and girl not together this Christmas. Girl misses boy. So the apparent conflict is in their separation.
But there’s something else going on here. There is no happy ending. The boy never shows up. If we listen closely to the lyrics and their delivery, though, we can feel another kind of tension. There is another conflict occurring, and that is between the forced joy of the season and the singer’s own personal feelings of being sad and lonely. Once we become aware of this implicit conflict, the pieces of the song fall into place. We realize that the background choir is a group of people singing the single word “Christmas” over and over in a monotone, the effect being almost oppressive. In contrast, Love’s individual vocal is marvelously expressive, her voice caressing and playing with every word, every syllable.
In this new light, the details of the season can be seen as constant tugs to involve the singer in the traditional, social events of the season, to give up her feelings of loneliness and isolation, to “go with the flow.”
With this tension in mind, let’s see how the conflict plays out and reaches resolution.
The song opens quietly. Strings quaver in the background, foreshadowing the emotions to come. Christmas bells ring on the beat. A lonely, halting bass line climbs the scale and then descends repeatedly. (Audio clip – 92K.) We work our way through the simple chord structure for one verse. Then the drums accelerate and launch us into the first vocal verse.
The vocal verses are richly layered. Multiple percussion instruments play interlocking rhythms, strings play counterpoint to the vocal, what sounds like a saxophone is used to add to the rhythmic surge. (Audio clip – 84K.)
Darlene Love’s magnificent vocal soars in and around the pounding rhythms, like a surfer working her way through heavy swells, just beyond the reach of the undertow, harnessing all that power, playing with it.
A saxophone solo serves as punctuation. It is rich and warm, reminding us of the intimacy lost, the closeness needed but no longer available. (Audio clip – 124K.)
Another chorus, then the final verse. Darlene Love’s voice quivers on the final word of each line, as if on the verge of tears, near breakdown. “If there was a way, I’d hold back this tear, but it’s Christmas Day, please...”
Now the background singers echo her plea, “Please...” The call and response continues, accelerates, trading this one word back and forth, faster and faster, a piano now building in the background, begging for release, gradually climbing the scale, the pounding of the drums accelerating, until Darlene finally explodes, “Baby, please come home!” The piano soars now. Darlene repeats her request. The drums run free, no longer just carrying the beat but improvising, as the power of the climax winds down into release. (Audio clip – 120K.) Conflict between seasonal reminders and personal feelings are resolved, as the singer expresses her emotions fully and completely. Liberated from all restraint, she pours her true emotions out, honestly and openly, without shame or remorse.
It’s instructive to compare this recording to another belonging to a prior generation, but with very similar lyric and thematic content. “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” was one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite songs. This is a similar tale. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy misses girl. And similarly, the tension in this song is also between the need to control and suppress one’s feelings and the need to express them. The setting for the Sinatra song, though, is in a quiet bar late at night. The singer is able to express his feelings only to the bartender, and only after several drinks. He expresses his feelings with great restraint, referring to them indirectly, saying that he has to tell someone, or he “soon might explode.”
Given all these similarities, what is interesting is how different the two recordings are. The resolution of the Sinatra song is in the bar closing, the singer getting himself under control, successfully suppressing his feelings. The resolution of the Spector song is in the singer completely expressing and releasing her feelings. Whereas Sinatra successfully avoids an explosion, Love successfully explodes. The lyrics to the Sinatra song are clever and ironic. The lyrics to the Spector song are direct and effective. Sinatra offers a wonderful interpretation of “One For My Baby,” playing the part almost as an actor might. Love simply uses the words and melody as a starting point, with the real effect coming in the arrangement and vocal delivery. Instrumental backing for the Sinatra song is spare and low-key, echoing the reserve of the singer, and emphasizing the understated irony of the lyrics. Instrumentation for the Spector song is rich and multi-layered, representing the powerful opposing forces at work in the song, and the ultimate emotional release of the singer.
All in all, this masterpiece from Spector and Love is a wonderful example of the new aesthetic offered by rock music.
Next: Bob Dylan