In his book One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, Neil Tennant writes a single footnote about a song that has long intrigued me:
I imagined Jesus coming back to earth on the eve of his birthday and, like the young British student Stephen Lawrence, is murdered in a racist attack, dying for our sins all over again.Neil Tennant, One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem
It is not, then, a cheery song. Christmas song this is not.
Each verse of the 2002 track is dirge-like, with the melody only really lifting and unfolding in the chorus where we’re asked to contemplate ‘do you remember/he’s been through all this before?’ It’s a song of repetition, not just of musical motif, but also of metaphor and theme. The very essence of the song is the relationship between existence, death, and rebirth. The connection of narrative to time is complex. Although the reference to Jesus playing ‘the machines in the arcade’ dates the song, we are also asked to read this through the lens of much older Christian thinking. This traditional understanding is, though, questioned and challenged. Jesus is ‘born again’ and although he may well indeed ‘have been through all this before’ the Christian certainty that he will die for our sins is brought into question with the verse:
‘This time around/It’s all a mistake/Is he deluded/Or just a fake?’
This is Tennant at his lyrical best: opaque, uncertain, metaphorically dense. It is a song so rich in Biblical allusion that it’s difficult to grasp quite where to begin with it. Indeed, any way into the song is also complicated by the fact that it is both present and past, both Jesus and Stephen Lawrence, both religiously significant and also theologically distant.
It is perhaps towards the end of the song where this is most evident:
‘A quick betrayal/A speedy trial/As before/Complete denial’
It is a comment on the repetitive nature of such horrific murders and the modern societal response to them; and it is also a reference to the betrayal of Jesus by his disciple Judas Iscariot, the trial in front of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilot, and the denial by Simon Peter that he even knew Jesus.
The song ends with a sample of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by English composer Harold Edwin Drake. It’s a fitting ending to a song that is so textured with references to other names, other stories, and other times. The central question of the song remains long after the choir of Clair College stops singing:
‘If you knew his name/would you feel this same?’