In spite of his atheist beliefs, Aidan Moffat knows how to make a good Christmas album. His second long playing venture with RM Hubbert, Ghost Stories For Christmas is an intimate collection of seasonal portraits, delving deep into the effect the festive season has on relationships and the beliefs (or lack of) behind them. Recorded over barely a couple of weeks in the summer, it is a basic affair – and is all the better for it.
Not for Moffat and Hubbert an orchestra of thickly layered strings. Rather they utilise the latter’s craft in the studio, arriving at just the same amount of warmth with a couple of judiciously wielded sleigh bells and crackling sound effects to add the festive glitter. Fireside, the instrumental with which the album begins, only has to be on for 10 seconds to effortlessly paint a picture of domestic warmth and contentment.
The subject matter of Christmas is treated with similar economy. “We don’t need wise men and virgins,” proclaims Weinachtstimmung, having already decided to “toast the trees with cider and watch Doctor Who.” Dressed with sleigh bells, it captures the point many households experience where religion and goodwill to all family members and friends briefly overlap.
Moffat’s storytelling is often exquisite, and reaches its peak in The Fir Tree, a wonderful tale punctuated by Hubbert’s guitar, the extraneous production touches of the wind in the tree painting vivid strokes of detail. The tree in question pines for a starring role at Christmas, and loves being dressed in silver and gold, but regrets his decision when the season passes and he is stripped bare, “confused and naked in a dark shed”. His final fate is a ghastly one.
Meanwhile sleigh bells tinkle gently in the middle distance as the family wait for their last member to arrive on Desire Path, a kind of Driving Home For Christmas from the receivers’ end. “Just follow the crow and follow my call, my voice as the star of Bethlehem. Let it bring you back to me,” Moffat instructs in confidential vocals.
His Falkirk burr lends itself perfectly to headphone listening, and there are beautifully painted vignettes of wry humour. Such Shall You Be is arguably the best of these, where he sneaks off to the toilet for a quick check of the phone and a short time out from the festive chatter, only to be interrupted by his little girl who has seen vision of “the old man” again…”and he’s smiling”.
Ode To Plastic Mistletoe takes a darker path, looking towards the New Year but in recognition that such times of year where forced jollity is imposed can also be the hardest for a good number of people.
There are two excellent cover versions. A take on Mud’s 1974 number one Lonely This Christmas removes the affected, post-Elvis crooning and adds a certain world weariness to the tread of the drums, while a stately and winsome version of Yazoo‘s Only You with Jenny Reeve is restrained yet beautiful.
Throughout the 10 songs both performers are clearly having fun, and yet – as you might expect from its Ghost Stories title – there is darkness at the heart of this album. For that reason it is the perfect Yuletide accompaniment, capturing perfectly the comforts and wonder of the season – but also the awkwardness nobody wants to talk about. Pull up a chair, get a glass of mulled wine and put it on repeat.