"Another broken reindeer / Another candle / Another velvet ribbon" Alan Sparhawk mewled over a naked guitar on "Taking Down the Tree," the penultimate track on Low's 1999 EP, Christmas. Then, from nowhere, without hesitation: "Another nosebleed." The celestial Mimi Parker joined the song after that, harmonizing with her husband, pulling the song up into the atmosphere, far enough away that it was impossible to catch another glimpse of its jagged edges. But someone's nose was gushing blood. Parker took over on the final song, the foreboding "One Special Gift"—"There'll be just enough left / For one special gift / For one special guest"—and the record faded to pitch black.
That was a strange note to end on. Christmas, released shortly after the Duluth band's crackling and unnerved fourth LP Secret Name, has since become an indie holiday favorite thanks in no small part to its opener, "Just Like Christmas." Muffled and bleary, its archetypal sleigh bells bounding along and booming drums adding punctuation, that song came off like a melancholic but rather breezy standard. The actual covers on Christmas—"Little Drummer Boy," "Blue Christmas," and "Silent Night"—were all slowed down to within an inch of their lives, forced to conform to Low's vision, but they weren't forcefully disquieting. Even "If You Were Born Today," a song thick with biblical allusions ("If you were born today / We'd kill you by age eight") was more depressed than creepy. There was no indication that blood would be involved when the decorations came down. And who's the "special guest"?
It would be easy enough to bracket those songs and say that Christmas, like so many Low albums, is a journey—or, more specifically, a descent. "Just Like Christmas" seemed happy after all, but it was a Christmas song in name only, Parker singing: "You said it was like Christmas / But you were wrong / It wasn't like Christmas at all." From there it moved inside, away from Scandinavian highways, towards the fire, where even "Silent Night" can sound disturbing when the flames lap up. But Low's next Christmas song, released nine years later, turned out to be one of the more harrowing holiday songs of all time, a continuation of those last uncanny throes:
"Santa's Coming Over," released via Sub Pop in 2008, is downright terrifying. Sparhawk is chilly and childlike, joined at first by only an uncomfortable guitar and the dismembered giggles of toddlers. "Tapping on the rooftop / Laughter in the chimney / Hide beneath the covers / Santa's coming over," he sings, presenting Santa as the villain that we all know he is. The long "ah" that follows when the cymbals push in sit halfway between the melodic and the murderous—a man smiling while holding a dead-eyed stare. He's embodying a child who's smart enough to know that an old man who breaks into your house every year is no friend, but it's not enough to leave it there. He turns the home into a warzone: "Oh what will he bring me? / Will he see the cookies? / Watch him on the radar." Even Parker, following Sparhawk word for word, doesn't calm things down, instead giving the impression that there's a gang of children, all equally scared, all willing to do what it takes to avoid the old man disturbing their roof tiles. They chant "Santa's coming over" five times on the first go-around, then double up the second time. Every time the words pass their lips, they seem more and more like a threat.
If, somehow, that hasn't already forced you to board up your windows, here's the video for the song, which is comprised entirely of close-up shots of young children. They have all, quite clearly, just returned from the depths of Hell. And they saw some shit there:
Christmas is an unsettling time in the Northern Hempisphere. The nights are long, frost bites the grass, and normal life shuts down at least to the extent that you can't easily get a train away from danger without waiting a few hours. Tim Burton played into that with The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the bands who remade the movie's Danny Elfman-scored soundtrack in 2008 polished the aesthetic off for a new, vampire-obsessed generation. But, aside from that, Christmas songs aren't often intentionally scary. Those in search of unsettling holiday music usually have to turn to the inadvertently spooky: "You better watch out, you better not cry / Better not pout, I'm telling you why…"
So, while Low have added plenty to the season—one eight-track EP, a heartwarming single in 2016, one bona fide classic with "Just Like Christmas"—their most remarkable contribution might be "Santa's Coming Over." It's the only song that fully recognizes the need for Santa-tracking radar. Special guests aren't always good news.
Alex Robert Ross is hiding beneath the covers. Follow him on Twitter.