The first text came in at 12:01 on Nov. 1, as I was scarfing the fun-size chocolate bars out of my daughter’s trick-or-treating bag. Outside on the streets, fake cobwebs and skeletons were still swinging limply in the trees. On the screen: a screenshot of the song “Santa’s Coming for Us” playing in a music app. Maddie Ziegler’s giant blue eyes. A deranged red and green Christmas wig, glowing brighter than any jack-o’-lantern in the city. The message: “NEVER. TOO. EARLY.” It could only mean one thing: It was past midnight, Halloween was over, and it was therefore finally, officially, Sia Christmas Album Season. This text, the first of several similar messages I would receive from friends over the next 24 hours, was just the initial shot across the giant hairbow.
Sia’s Everyday Is Christmas was released on Nov. 17, 2017 to mixed reviews, which I will do my best not to refute line for line here, but … “joylessly sane,” New Yorker, really? What an unfair characterization for this relentlessly, ridiculously enjoyable collection of howls, whistles, barks, jingles, sobs, and full-lung belts disguised as Christmas music. I am here to testify that even a whole year later, Sia’s holiday album has a cult, of which I’m a member. If loving Everyday Is Christmas is wrong, then I—along with a select group of other worshipful enthusiasts—don’t want to be right.
Earlier this month, Sia dropped three new songs for the deluxe edition of Everyday Is Christmas, including the very first cover tune in her holiday oeuvre, Perry Como’s “Round and Round.” But Sia, who has written songs for everyone from Beyoncé to Kate Pierson, doesn’t need a comforting patchwork of covers to put out a Christmas album. She’s one of those songwriters who comes up with eight hooks by the time she’s finished breakfast, and reportedly wrote the entire album in just two weeks. In fact, the delight and surprise of Everyday Is Christmas is that it is so spontaneous and weird, in a genre that dutifully trots out Phil Spector’s spirit like one of Scrooge’s ghosts every year.
By weird, I do mean weird. Sia’s not trying to reinvent Christmas music so much as uninvent it. Where other Christmas albums have chimes, Sia’s has slide whistles. Where other holiday songs treacle on about Christmas kisses, Sia’s take on mistletoe is frankly terrifying: “It’s Christmastime—so run for your life!” Sia’s version of a jingle-bell rocker is a throaty, rollicking ode to old dogs, with trombones in place of sleigh bells. One of the most sing-along-able songs is about using the season as an excuse to get drunk with as many of your similarly messed-up friends as can actually stagger their way to the bar. “I hope the misfits show up. Ho ho … HO!”
We’re all misfits at Christmastime, according to Sia, and her Christmas album is a series of anthems to the built-in contradictions of the season. Everything about Everyday Is Christmas, starting with the cover art, has that strangeness baked into it like nutmeg. That includes a creepy—but still somehow sweet—trilogy of animated videos for the album, in which a little girl, a Sia stand-in with half-red, half-green hair, meets, adores, and then must abandon a lonely snow monster who lives in a haunted ice house. Christmas is a season of earnestness, hope, and cheer, but also of drunken silliness, loss, and even grief. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
Of course, Sia’s no slouch at selling things herself. Her highly successful songwriting formula, about which she is more than candid, is to tap into big emotions we can all relate to—desperation, hurt, love, hope—and then stick a giant electrode into the mess and light it the hell up. It works because she’s a good songwriter who knows what her audience wants: to feel both recognized and surprised, preferably within the same 3½ minutes. But in this case, the formula also works because of her voice.
Sia’s signature squeaks, breaks, and otherworldly upper-register cries are in full effect here, thank Honey Baked Ham. But then there are songs like “Underneath the Christmas Lights,” with its chanting, slip-sliding refrain that’s more slurred than sung: “Hundahneatdakwissmaslights! Hundahneatdakwissmasliiiii-iiiiiiights!” Or the title track, in which Sia eventually gives up on singing words and just ecstatically bellows the soaring background melody: “Oh, oh whoa oh oh oh, whoa oh oh oh, with you by my side.” There are songs so tenderly sung, so warm and drowsy and bluesy, that they’re like being drunk at home alone after the holiday party, or like being lost in a snowfall, gradually realizing you’re falling asleep but welcoming the dark.
Christmas is many things to many people, and it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to appreciate Christmas songs that are as much about loss as they are about gifts. Right after the two danceable songs that open the album (“Santa’s Coming for Us,” still my favorite, and “Candy Cane Lane,” with the irresistible rhyme “We can dance! Ain’t no can’ts! ’Cause here everything is possible!”) comes a pair of songs about Christmas as loss, “Snowman” and “Snowflake,” that are simultaneously the most endearing and the most challenging on the whole record. I suspect many of the album’s detractors reached these two songs and felt like they hit a wall of weirdness that they just couldn’t get past. These songs are about snow, right? So where are the sleigh bells? Where are the chimes? Where’s that big Spector baby-please-come-home sound? Why did it suddenly get so … quiet?
“Christmas day your freedom comes, unprotected from the sun/ By then you’ll be cold enough for me to send you off with love/ Snowflake, don’t forget us.” If for you, Christmas means confronting loss, it is difficult to hear these words and not be moved. Sia’s Christmas album is certainly about loss, for me. It came out right around the time that my mother’s cancer moved into its final stage. We binged the songs for months, craving both their eccentricities and their comforts, in a time when everything was bittersweet and bizarre. It was our last Christmas with my mother, with her light and her humor and her unashamed love of us and of the stupid holiday season and dammit, why not sing your heart out with all of your love? The swinging sweetness of “Sunshine” made me feel heard, and disarmed, all in under 3½ minutes: “My love, I know that it’s been tough/ My love, I know you’ve had it rough.”
We used to have a holiday tradition of driving up to the redwoods from where my mother lived in California, blasting Christmas music the whole way, taking a short but reverent hike, and then coming home for dinner and warm drinks. Last Christmas, my mother was too tired and sick to join us, but my husband and 7-year-old daughter came along with me, at Mom’s insistence. And on the way home we three listened in quiet to Everyday Is Christmas on repeat, and as the red sun hit the dusty green hills and we knew this was the last time we’d do this, we were just grateful that someone was there to put how we felt into music.