There aren’t many acts for whom a Christmas album reads like a perfectly logical, natural extension of their well thought-out aesthetic. But that’s how Christmas Special works for the Boy Least Likely To, who has built a career and devoted following on their blend of childlike wonder and innocence with adult anxieties and snark. That the Christmas season can inspire both a sense of marvel and Seasonal Affective Disorder, then, means that a holiday album falls right into the band’s precise, peculiar wheelhouse.
The Boy Least Likely To has always developed a sense of tension between the cheerfulness of their music’s arrangements and the morose bent of their lyrics, and that’s no less true of Christmas Special than of any of their previous albums. The record opens with a flourish of banjo, bells, and handclaps on “Blue Spruce Needles,” but the song quickly turns the detail of finding dead needles from the previous year’s Christmas tree under the couch into a painful reminder of a relationship that ended suddenly. “The First Snowflake” is even bleaker, giving delicate, sensitive voice to a single snowflake that eventually realizes that it may be unique, but that it shouldn’t feel too special, seeing as it’s part of a much larger blizzard. As a general rule, these are not songs that wish anyone happy holidays.
Even the more festive tracks are characterized by an ironic remove. “The Wassail Song” is the only traditional Christmas song on the set, a deliberately obtuse song choice that would play as even more of a joke if the duo didn’t perform it with such go-for-broke enthusiasm. And then there’s the matter of “George and Andrew,” a narrative about two long-lost friends who, by chance, reunite over pints in a lonely bar on Christmas. That it’s explicitly about George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, however, makes it impossible to take the song’s greater sentiment about childhood friends at face value. And considering how god-awfully grating the ‘80s duo’s “Last Christmas” is, the prospect of a Wham! reunion at Christmastime is a gift no right-minded person would want.
If Christmas Special were simply a matter of taking the piss out of the Christmas season, the album would come across as smug. But with the exception of “George and Andrew,” the Boy Least Likely To grounds their cockeyed view of the holiday in well-drawn anxieties and twitchiness. It isn’t irony for the simple sake of irony, and that, along with the band’s typically impeccable pop-song construction, makes Christmas Special worth some serious consideration and an essential addition to the duo’s catalogue. It may not be as creative as Annie Lennox’s A Christmas Cornucopia, but the Boy Least Likey To’s Christmas Special is at least as delightfully odd and nontraditional of a way to celebrate.