Words: Matthew Barton
Christmas music. It can bring us out in hives, or it can make us smile with sweet nostalgia.
It can make us scramble for the mute button on our TVs as another choir slaughters a festive carol, or stop everything if you’re like me and need to listen (and yes, maybe do the harmony parts) to 'Fairytale of New York' or 'All I Want for Christmas is You' in full volume at every opportunity.
But sometimes (every year?) many of the old favourites become as tired as your turkey leftovers and as cringe-worthy as an awkward Christmas dinner with the relatives you only see once a year for a reason.
There are a few underappreciated, hidden gem Christmas records lurking beneath the tinsel around the bargain bins and I wager that Cyndi Lauper’s yuletide effort, 1998’s Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life is ripe for a rescue, like a bizarre yet beautiful bauble you forgot at the back of your cupboard.
So why is Merry Christmas, a record by an artist with over thirty years’ worth of hit records, an artist enjoying a resurgence as a Tony-winning and Olivier-nominated musical writer for Kinky Boots, so neglected?
It could be because Christmas records in general are rarely taken as serious entries into an artist’s catalogue (unless you’re Michael Buble). It could be because it arrived in the midst of a “wilderness period” in Cyndi’s career where, despite some amazing records (lost classic 'Sisters of Avalon', anyone?) her record sales were in a comparative slump.
Or it could be because the cover art, with its waving, joke shop-bearded Santa and Microsoft Word '98 font, screams “novelty.”
But whatever the circumstances – and it must be noted that the addendum to the title Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life refers, at least in part, to the split with her long-time label Sony – there is way more to discover underneath the garish red exterior of this record than you may expect.
If you feel (and why wouldn’t you?) that your Christmas listening experience is missing a ska version of 'Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree', a bawdy tale of a woman fancying Santa and going off to the North Pole to snare him, or an inebriated conga that sounds like it has been beamed from a drag show at Gran Canaria’s Yumbo Centre, well, you’ve come to the right place.
Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life is something of a selection box; there are the moreish ones with the insistent melodies and warm arrangements (the lovely 'Home on Christmas Day' is a mid-tempo accordion-accented nugget, while the exuberant 'Feels Like Christmas' is a heartfelt declaration of love).
There are also the ones that you leave for a while, thinking you probably won’t like them, but then discover they’re actually pretty tasty (hello, flutey prog-rock version of 'Three Ships'), and the boozy ones with just a bit more liqueur than you anticipated that send you into a mid-afternoon food coma ('Minnie and Santa', a lewd waltz that sounds like it was birthed in an East End boozer by way of New York, replete with Cyndi’s inimitable Brooklynese.)
'Early Christmas Morning' is like a caramel and nut combination – when it opens with a children’s choir (which manages to be cute and NOT corny), you think you’ve got it sussed, but take another bite and you get a different texture completely, one of Cajun rhythms, accordion, guitars, organ, dulcimer, and a pretty mid-tempo melody.
Fact: in true bizarre fashion, it was this, of all Cyndi Lauper songs, that I once heard blaring from a deserted gay bar in Osaka. In August. (And it sounded good!)
There are also those weird flavour combinations that you only dare to try once you’re a bit sozzled yourself, you know, the 'tropical' ones with the colourful wrapping. 'Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree' gets a Coney Island fairground ska makeover, with novelty organ and Cyndi doing her reggae bit in the style of past triumphs like 'Witness' and 'Iko Iko'.
Then there’s the befuddled joy that is 'Christmas Conga' and, yes, that really is Cyndi singing “bonga bonga bonga, do the Christmas conga” – we’ve all been there, don’t judge.
It’s like the Yumbo Centre at Christmas wrapped in a three-minute song with a glittery bow – a little bit shopping centre tacky, a little tired drag show, and a lot fun. And when Cyndi implores you to “spike up the eggnog, and break those resolutions,” well, who are we to disagree?
By the time you reach 'New Year’s Baby', a gorgeous song about her then-newborn son Declyn (he even makes a cameo on gargling duties), you’re probably a bit tired, a bit stuffed, and quite a bit sloshed.
The only answer is a calming, relaxing, soothing Christmas bubble bath, maybe with your paper hat still on, to continue the festive spirit.
This is where the final trio of songs comes in, a beautiful ambient segment comprising the original composition 'December Child' and the traditional carols 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and 'Silent Night'.
These songs, in their whispery, bell-like versions, exhibit the wonderful folk influence in Cyndi’s work, and are so at odds with the portrait painted by the cover that it’s a little jarring.
Cyndi has always done a good line in light-hearted humour, but all of her records pack a sucker punch of emotion and beauty and this one is no different. Now, get out of the bath, your digits resemble prunes and your hat’s getting soggy.
So there you have it. Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life is like one of those presents you get which you’re sure you’ll probably do something with later… but then throw in a cupboard where it becomes a friend to the cobwebs.
It’s the weird little toy in a cracker that looks fun but you probably discarded it or gave it to someone else in the office Secret Santa. It’s the eccentric aunt in the corner of the party that no one wants to talk to (no, that’s mean – and go talk to that aunt, she’s fun.)
In short, it’s equal parts strange, fun, bizarre, beautiful, and powerful – pretty much descriptions that can describe all of Cyndi Lauper’s wonderful, imaginative records.
She is a true original, a fabulous songwriter and intuitive singer. All of her records deserve deeper investigation (especially '90s jewels Hat Full of Stars and Sisters of Avalon), but twenty years on, and because it’s Christmas, why not give this one a go.
And unlike that extra bottle you opened to wash down the pudding, you won’t regret it. I promise.