I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I call “Fairytale of New York” the greatest secular Christmas song of all time and one of the greatest songs ever.
The Pogues were at a creative peak when If I Should Fall From Grace With God was released in 1988, and while the band was much too ragged to release a flawless album, both Grace and their previous record, Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash are dazzling achievements.
“Fairytale of New York,” the fourth track on Grace, opens with the narrator in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve. From there he flashes back on the life he and his lover have shared, from the joyous optimism of two Irish immigrants in New York City to their later descent into animosity and substance abuse. The song ends on a hopeful note, with the narrator deciding to turn his life around, glorious, swelling strings hinting that maybe this Christmas will be the day he begins to redeem himself.
The late Kirsty MacColl provides the female vocal, and it’s a tremendous performance–when she declares “You took my dreams from me,” the heartache is palpable. Pogues’ lead Shane MacGowan is almost as good, his three-packs-a-day rasp contrasting vividly with MacColl’s lilt. Their chemistry is amazing–like a classic romantic film. After “You took my dreams from me,” comes the perfect rejoinder: “I kept them with me, babe.”
Whether you’ve never heard this song or if you’ve heard it a thousand times, I encourage you to take four minutes, turn up your speakers, and listen to this masterpiece. From the songwriting, to the arrangement, to the performance, it’s about as perfect a song as mere humans can create. I am also not exaggerating when I say that it gives me goosebumps nearly every time I hear it.