Content Warning: mentions of alcoholism
Inspired by the Christmas albums released by Bright Eyes and Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers’ annual holiday song tradition began in 2017 when she covered “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Since then, she has added her signature haunting sound to songs like Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” to create a Christmas E.P. that seems to channel the Christmas ghost stories of the Victorian era.
Such a view of the holiday season casts a certain melancholia over it, but Bridgers is not one to shy away from the macabre and unnerving in her music, whether it’s original songs or covers. Songs from her previous albums “Punisher” and “Stranger in the Alps” are suffused with images of corpses, haunted houses and childhood beds that give the impression she’s writing from inside a ghost story or purgatory — a helpless in-between where time is an existential blur. Her music blends the psychological, shadowy and poetic to create a kind of lyrical ectoplasm that hints at a haunted presence.
Bridgers’ latest addition to her Christmas song catalog — a cover of the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine” — paints a grim portrait of the holiday season: a pile of clothes thrown in the snow, someone passed out on the floor and a car driving away. Written by Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family, “So Much Wine” conveys the story of a loved one’s struggle with alcoholism through the eyes of the person who is rendered speechless by the spontaneous, drunken actions they bear witness to. “I had nothing to say on Christmas Day,” Bridgers sings in the opening line.
In the original version from their 2000 album “In the Air,” the Handsome Family’s gothic, Americana storytelling is delivered in a resigned, matter-of-fact manner. The harmonica and twangy guitar cushion the devastating imagery of the “bottom of your glass” and the “blood on your teeth,” illustrating the complicated interplay between expressing and suppressing personal strife.
Under Bridgers’ care, “So Much Wine” becomes an elegiac blend of warmth and bitterness — the mulled wine to the Handsome Family’s wine. The acoustic treatment she applies builds on the emotionally evocative and raw original and adds a softly haunting overtone to the song’s meditation on a relationship undone by alcohol.
The vocals from Bridgers and Andrew Bird — who played the violin on the Handsome Family’s album “In the Air” — are quietly pleading; they cannot shake the image of their loved one’s “sad, shining eyes.” During the chorus, where the harmonies and percussion swell, Bridgers pleads, “Listen to me, Butterfly/There’s only so much wine/That you can drink in one life” with the same desperation of the person who waits “like a dog with a bird at your door” in her song “Moon Song.”
That’s not to say the song is without beauty. Bridgers sings about stars and “meteors divided and shot across the sky” that resemble the spiritual dimension of folk tales. The impression of the fiddle and organ arrangement and the backing vocals that feature actor Paul Mescal, Bridgers’ partner, are atmospheric. The composition is translated into sound and converted into feeling; the sun rises and the car stops to admire the sky.
In Bridgers’ cover of “So Much Wine,” all that is constant in Christmas songs — fallen snow and holiday celebrations — carries the malaise of the ghosts of Christmas past and present. Her voice retreats, pleas and reasons to no avail, eliciting a circadian ache as she sings about trying to salvage a relationship that’s atomizing. The uneven relationship between love and loneliness, between wine and time, frustrates her as much as it haunts her. “And it will never be enough,” she sings.