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Tracey Thorn – Joy


By common consensus, 2016 has been a fairly terrible year – though in a funny way I tend to think that an awful lot of people are starting to enjoy it for that very reason. No doubt there are some who will feel a strange, slightly guilty sense of disappointment if at least one more major celebrity doesn’t peg it by December 31st, just to round things off in truly terrible I-told-you-so fashion. You might think a year like this would bring people together in a show of unity and niceness, but as far as I can tell everyone’s just trying to come up with the best ‘me at the start/me at the end’ 2016 meme to get the most likes on Instagram. What a world, etc.

Another consequence of this seems to be that everyone is just that little bit more up for Christmas, which this year must be feeling a terrible amount of pressure to be the best one ever. And if Christmas 2016 deserves its own theme tune, then I have the perfect one for you. It’s a small, quiet song with a truly gorgeous, best-end-of-term-concert-ever sort of arrangement which pulls ever so gently on the loose thread of why we love this time of year, picking it apart just enough to understand it but not so much that the whole thing unravels. The song is called Joy, and it comes from Tracey Thorn’s 2012 album Tinsel and Lights.

Christmas is, in many ways, an act of denial: the one time when worrying about it later is the sensible thing to do. You can deny what’s going on in the larger world. You can pretend your bank balance is better than it is for the sake of making other people happy. You can tell yourself that this year at least one member of your family won’t shut themselves in their childhood bedroom because of some perceived slight, even though they patently will. You just blot out everything experience has taught you and chuck yourself into it, knowing deep down that it will be exactly the same for the rest of time. As exhausting and repetitive as Christmas can be, it recharges us.

Joy does an excellent job of explaining this without taking the shine off (as I think I might just have done). Tracey puts it this way: “You loved it as a kid, and now you need it more than you ever did / It’s because of the dark; we see the beauty in the spark”. Isn’t that just absolutely true? Especially now, I think.

Of course loving a song is so often about much more than the song itself. I’m particularly in love with Joy because I first heard it in what I reckon is its most perfect setting. Allow me to take you back to the 20th of November 2012, at precisely 15:57 (I know this thanks to Facebook’s On This Day feature), when I posted the following status update: “Sitting on a rainswept, drab train platform in Walton on Thames listening to Tracey Thorn’s Christmas album. Strangely happy.”

Readers, I really was. I’d been in Walton on Thames on retail business, helping a new store manager set up the shop for the festive period, and having finished slightly early I hot footed it to the station in the hopes of catching an earlier train home. Having just missed one, I subsequently had half an hour to wait for the next. So, with the light fading, the rain falling and a distinct chill setting in, I decided I’d give Tinsel and Lights, a go – and of course I couldn’t have picked a better time and place to do it. Some people make records for those moments when you’re sipping champagne on a chaise longue in Monaco, and others make them for when you’re sucking from a carton of Ribena on a wet bench in Surrey. As I’ve never done the former – and am unlikely to unless Dame Shirley Bassey invites me round – I can’t tell you how that feels (probably quite nice), but I certainly can with the latter: it feels wonderful. The world shrinks to just you and the song on your headphones. Surrounded by darkness, feeling cold and just wanting to get home somehow becomes one of those moments you won’t ever forget. For me, Joy will forever be the chill that became the thrill that transformed the most banal place imaginable into a wonderland.

So yes, 2016 hasn’t been all that, if viewed through a certain filter. But what Joy tells us is that we should never, ever give in to it: “So light the winter fire / and watch as the flames grow higher / we’ll gather up our fears / and face down all the coming years / and all that they destroy / and in their face we throw our joy”.

Christmas. It’s for the grown-ups really, isn’t it?

r-4011757-1375725016-2075-jpegEntered chart: did not chart

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’m seriously considering making my permanent answer to this question ‘whoever has the streaming numbers today’.


  1. Thanks for this. Tracey’s gone from being someone that I liked just fine during my teenage/college years to being someone whose voice and music now feel utterly essential to my everyday functioning … and smart, shimmering, beautifully melancholy songs like this one are the reason.


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