I’d like to propose a slightly crazy lens through which to view this album. Yeah, it all seems pretty upbeat and jingle bells-ish at first listen. However, as I sat with this album, as usual, I realized the still waters of this little cheerfully wrapped present ran deceptively deep in more than a few spots. SO here’s my overthought and very subjective theory. All the songs here can be understood to lie on a continuum. On the right end are the tunes that are mainly about Christmas, in the friendship and family and Micky and Davy sliding down Melvin Vandersnoot’s chimney with care sense of Christmas. However, this album also contains more than a few tunes that, whether or not they use the word “Christmas” in the lyrics, more heavily invoke the themes of a much older (and darker) version of the winter solstice holiday, by design, circumstance, or a combination of the two.
Winter Solstice has gone by a lot of names (Yule’s probably the one you’ve heard most often, but it’s honored in some form by just about every culture on the planet). There are varying practices (many of which have been absorbed into our contemporary Christmas traditions), but one of the common themes is a mourning of the death of the old year/king/sun and a kindling of hope sparked by the rebirth or renewal of the new year/king/sun. Very much a cyclical, melancholy, but also hopeful exploration of the mysteries of the waxing and waning of life. This darker take on the holiday in contemporary pop culture certainly isn’t a new innovation. One can find playlists full of darker/sadder holiday ditties that emphasize the dying of the old year or old loves over the sparkling tinsel possibilities of the new season about to dawn on the horizon. Compare, Say, Winter Wonderland to the original lyrics of Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
To be clear, I don’t think this “Christmas/solstice” tension that I sensed was completely a deliberate artistic choice by anyone involved. Even for a band whose lyrics once name-checked Plato’s cave allegory, who released a movie that anticipated post-structuralism, and who return again and again in their work to meditations on their artistic journey as a cyclical spiral of decline and rebirth rather than a linear progression through time, that’s pushing it. However, circumstances have brought a decidedly melancholy undertone to the still-upbeat vibe of the Monkees’ community over the second half of 2018.
To be blunt, between a quadruple bypass, Micky’s cryptic comments in a pre-release interview, and Peter’s request for privacy the day before the album dropped, it’s getting harder and harder to pretend that The Monkees are still those eternally young men we can cue up at the press of a button, or even the older but still vibrant men of recent years who could help us beat the darkness back a little while longer by leading us all in one more chorus of Daydream Believer. I sense a similar vibe from this album, which combines the joyous celebratory tone of Good Times while dialing up the tinges of melancholy that shaded moments like Me and Magdelena. And if the tension between cheer and wistfulness in the album was intentional, then kudos to the artistic team involved for providing a surprisingly vulnerable exploration of the joy and sadness of a group that (especially since 2012) simultaneously embodies a seemingly immortal sense of joy and creative possibility while also honestly grappling with their own singular and collective complexity, flaws, and mortality. Kind of like the complex stew of emotions that often arise for people around the winter holidays, come to think of it.
At a glance the cover of the Monkees Christmas party contains the jumble of cheerful symbolism and deep-cut easter eggs one saw in Good Times. Finger puppet aside (I know some of you love it but I think the thing is fucking creepy), that album cover depicts what would have been my fantasy Christmas morning in 1987 or 1988. But wait–what’s that in the bottom? The Monkees in their outfits from Head, running away from the mob and toward the bridge and their “deaths”. Seems a kind of weird image to invoke next to all the tinsel and neon and lunch boxes.
Or maybe, if one takes more of a Solstice angle on this album, it’s not that weird a choice at all.
(I’m just gonna leave this right here.)
(This one too.)
If you want to learn more I’ve linked some of the most interesting resources at the end of this post, but since this is an album review, not a comparative religion article, I’m gonna rope in my inner didact and get to the damn music. I took the liberty of embedding the spotify playlist so you can listen while you read. (kind of like The Prison! Except totally unlike The Prison!)