I may have come relatively late to the musical genius of Jay Brannan, but by now he’s been something close to everything all the time for me for months. I guess being more ignorant than hostile to his music probably disqualifies me from being a convert, the types of people best known for embracing their opposites most fervently, but nonetheless, a new Jay Brannan single has now become one of those things that makes my heart beat faster. I noticed it for the first time when Jay released In Living Cover last summer, and now, thankfully, it’s happening again. Stubbornly in-character, the perennial misanthrope has released Christmas Really Sucks. Enjoy Thanksgiving, guys, apparently it’ll be all downhill from here.
For the cynics out there – who, for the simple reason that they are cynics, should in fact be unconditional Jay Brannan fans – I’ll just say right away that I don’t think it’s a problem that all Brannan songs are grounded in the same musical universe. What one cynic may write off as tired musical tropes, another man may identify as an indispensable signature, and in this case I happen to be that other man. There is nothing convenient or predictable about his sparse arrangements, because he has honed the balance between his soft vocals and rough-edged lyrics in such a way that the music only heightens that inherent nerve. I generally hate it when critics talk about the potential for authenticity in the kind of ‘therapeutic’ singer/songwriter tradition that Jay Brannan is part of, but it could be useful in one way: To smack people over the head with it if their songwriting is too transparent, introverted or unoriginal to hold up under the stripped down arrangements. Luckily, Jay Brannan is much too good a songwriter to fall into that trap. Authenticity may be a useless term, but he should wear his lack of phoniness like a badge of honor.
I think it’s in the lyrics. He has a way of twisting known cliches (feeling lonely at Christmas, walking on empty streets, calling someone to discover that they’re with someone else, etc.), so that the images don’t sound as worn-out as they would have with a lesser songwriter. “It’s cold, but light outside/another sleepless night/and Santa never made it” is a refreshing way to channel the sadness that runs through the entire song. It sort of frames the whole thing, and keeps it interesting whether you read Santa’s absence as a bad omen, or as a snarky comment on a symbol of infantilism in what’s essentially a very lonely holiday for many people. That said, personally I wouldn’t underestimate the sheer value of its quoteability, either.
I had a similar reaction to the verse about calling someone for the first time in a long time (‘You’re on the telephone sounds like you’re not alone/it’s been so long since we’ve spoken’). There’s something undefinably sad about the next couple of lines: ‘Has your day been merry?/cuz mine’s been blue/hey, can i stay in love with you?’ Try that again: Hey, can I stay in love with you? No matter if this is read as someone hopelessly clinging to a lost love for their own reasons, or if he thinks there’s a chance they might get back together; if it’s said half-jokingly, or even if if the point of view has suddenly shifted (‘you’re on the the telephone’ could, potentially but not likely, mean that the narrative voice is now with the other guy); whichever it is, making something fresh and interesting out of such a common scene says something about how good Jay Brannan is.
Having Christmas Really Sucks as my December soundtrack (alongside Hanson’s Snowed In, for sentimental reasons) probably won’t derail my Christmas mentally, which is itself a testament to another one of those qualities I consider quintessentially Brannan: Even his saddest and/or angriest songs are so delicately arranged and delivered that they become not only pleasurable to listen to, but also have a certain humorous tone to them, ensuring that he doesn’t boxing himself in totally with sadness. Stay sad, bring joy, Jay.