The Boy Least Likely To still believes in Santa Claus. Or at least, so go the lines of “Happy Christmas Baby,” bouncing along astride the swells and contractions of its 50s-style string arrangements. It’s a puzzling belief in a song that earlier professes the joys of being “drunk before lunch on Christmas day/ Picking marzipan off the cake.” In a way, their adherence to juvenile ideas, like a drinker with faith in Santa Claus, prevents the album from being anything but tooth-rottingly sweet. A person listening to “A Christmas Waltz” will view the song in one of two ways: an upbeat, whimsical primer for the good times to come, or a jumble of the most irritating timbres ever.
That a Christmas album by an especially sugary twee-pop band would suck is not a foregone conclusion, especially from a band like The Boy Least Likely To, whose first two albums managed to convincingly balance being both jubilantly infantile and maturely musical. They were pleasant albums, good for turning on while one read Natalie Dee or baked, and the holiday season certainly seems like fertile ground for their cheery vibe. But the crushing inanity that attends a listening of Christmas Special is borderline inhuman.
“Blue Spruce Needles” begins quaintly enough, the titular foliage reminding the narrator of companioned past Christmases. “If Christmas is about being together/ Then how can it be Christmas if we are apart,” he muses. The song encapsulates the hoped-for equilibrium of Christmas cheer and melancholy reflection that is the Christmas Special’s raison d’etre. Its cartoonishly dumb banjo intro also encapsulates how badly the band fails to make that tension interesting in any way. Two songs later, the heavy percussion is dropped but the monochrome emotionality is here to stay: “I could ding-dong merrily/ Around the stupid Christmas tree/ But Christmas isn’t Christmas without you.”
Halfway through “George and Andrew,” whose incessant glockenspiel taints what otherwise might be a decent indie-pop single, one begins to wonder where The Boy Least Likely To get off telling us things we already know — “at Christmas time, it’s nice to get together with your friends/ Especially the friends that you don’t get to see much anymore.” Honestly, I’m confused as to why they don’t just re-label themselves as a children’s band, as the band is obviously not up to the task of imbuing their songs with any sort of emotional wallop.
Christmas albums for many listeners have long been artifacts of obligation, trotted out for one month out of the year from dusty attic boxes. But a limited period of enjoyment is no excuse for poor musical craftsmanship; that’s the trap into which The Boy Least Likely To, like the many other pop musicians who have wassailed before them, fall. Lines like “I know how to have fun with felt” on “I Can’t Make it Snow” will have listeners sputtering into their eggnog.
“The First Snowflake” closes the album, with a spacious arrangement reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Blue Sky.” “It was the first snowflake to fall” at the beginning, and “that first little snowflake is still special to me” by the end. Searching for meaning, one wonders, “Am I that snowflake to someone?” “What did it look like?” “Is that snowflake like Jesus?” “Can I have one?” But the artless framing of the metaphor (“each one special in its own way”) ensures that it’s all sound, little fury, and definitely not signifying anything interesting. It ends like a taunt, or a plastic Christmas tree, or some neighbor whose wholehearted but lame parties you feel obligated to attend.