Given recent government advice to avoid kissing strangers under the mistletoe this Christmas, there’s a sense in which the long-trailed festive hook-up between Ed Sheeran and Elton John counts as a reckless incitement to anarchy. For his part, Sheeran wants nothing more than a relentless tonguing beneath those poison berries this December: “Kiss me,” he sings; then later, “just keep kissing me!” (To be fair, this noted Wife Guy is unquestionably singing about his wife. Did you know he has a wife? He might have mentioned it.)
In every other respect, however, Merry Christmas – in case the perfunctory title didn’t make clear – is the very exemplar of avoiding unnecessary risk during this perilous season. There are sleigh bells. Church bells. Clattering reindeer hooves. A kids’ choir. Sickly strings. The full selection box, and delivered with about as much imagination as that staple stocking filler. Old friends Sheeran and John encourage us to “pray for December snow”, and the overall effect is a blanketing avalanche of plinky-plonky schmaltz rich in bonhomie and derivative in tune.
Post-Love Actually (which Sheeran parodied in an Instagram teaser for the song), post-department store festive ad arms race, the British cultural imagination around Christmas has been boiled down, like overdone sprouts, to the most banal set of tropes possible. And Ed’n’Elton have got the lot. Christmas is about love and drinking wine and lighting the fire and singing along to songs – preferably this one please, streamed indiscriminately.
Of course, this Christmas is also about that pesky pandemic. “I know there’s been pain this year, but it’s time to let it go,” Sheeran sings, pitchily. Look, sorry Uncle Martin died of the Covid, but do stop moping and have a Lindt ball. “While we’re here, can we all spare a thought for the ones who have gone?” they harmonise, in the loosest sense of the word. Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you, eh? Adding to the flimsy sense of this being an Official Pandemic Christmas Song is the fact that Elton appears to be yelling his lyrics from the socially distanced safe remove of the back garden (rather like he did for that barked, Shooting Stars club-style version of I’m Still Standing he performed during the first lockdown).
The rare cliche they skip is that Christmas is a season of goodwill to all men. And you may well ask: what’s the harm? Why the humbug? Especially since, during the 2021 Christmas period, all proceeds are laudably split between Sheeran’s Suffolk Music Foundation and John’s Aids Foundation.
But Elton John made one of the greatest Christmas hits of all time. Step Into Christmas has that dialled-up, manic energy that all the best Christmas songs have (and which reflects the tenor of this time of year more than homilies about fires and snow). With the absolutely will-this-do Merry Christmas, Sheeran and John seem to operate on the idea that it’s the thought that counts. They really, really shouldn’t have.