On "Dear December," Scott McCaughey creates Christmas music that reflects his rock 'n' roll values.
Scott McCaughey’s songs for The Minus 5 rarely line up exactly. They don’t go down the same oddball surrealist path that Robyn Hitchcock treads, but they are similarly more concerned with mood and feel that strict narrative coherence. When The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy sings “The Fourth Noel” on The Minus 5’s Dear December—out Friday with a vinyl edition in stores for the Black Friday Record Store Day—the grammar of the lines and paragraphs says he’s telling a story, but not one you can follow. Still, the rock ’n’ roll songcraft is so strong that when Meloy sings, “Sometimes it’s best to forget,” the feeling that something valuable has been lost is inescapable.
Dear December is a Christmas album, and in many ways it’s the Christmas album for people who sniff at them dismissively. Artists who aim for pop ubiquity get their Christmas albums out by mid-October, but McCaughey held his to a respectful-to-Thanksgiving November 24. Instead of saturating the songs with piety, family, and gaiety, he lets ambiguity and allusion carry the day. He sings, “We need a new Christmas hymn for you and me,” and his urgency is infectious, even if it’s not clear why that matters. He dabbles in conventional coherence on “Yule Tide Me Over,” but it’s a holiday romance story with all the tinsel scraped off. It’s not love-in-the-gutter stuff, but coming shortly after “Merry Christmas Mr. Gulp Gulp” and “Your Christmas Whiskey,” the song is haunted by the Ghost of Last Calls Past.
The album doesn’t give any musical ground to Christmas either. No bells—sleigh or otherwise—and no cooing voices in search of a silent night. McCaughey was part of R.E.M.’s touring band for years, and Peter Buck has been one of his most steady collaborators throughout the life of The Minus 5. Musically, they don’t stray too far from their love of garage band energy and chiming guitars, and the pop classicist in McCaughey keeps the songs tight. Nothing on Dear December lasts longer that 3:18, and five of the album’s eleven songs say their piece in under three minutes.
In that way, Dear December reflects the values of the first American indie rock scene and the members of it who sit in with The Minus 5. Just as those bands questioned or cut through conventions to get to more genuine, personal musical expressions, Dear December does Christmas McCaughey’s way. The album is shot through with a spirit of community and good cheer, and he expresses them through musical choices that reflect the values he shares with his collaborators and audience. Because of that, there’s little on the album that will sit easily on an all-Christmas station, but there’s also a lot there for those who want Christmas music to sound more like rock ’n’ roll.
The album’s upcoming release was recently overshadowed when Scott McCaughey suffered a stroke recently. Last week, his wife Mary Winzig announced that it happened while touring with Alejandro Escovedo. According to the statement, he is stable and recovering in an ICU in San Francisco, but he obviously has a long road ahead. Those who wish to help with the mounting medical bills can do so at a GoFundMe page set up for that purpose.