Jukebox Breakdown: Rilo Kiley – “Xmas Cake”
by Chad Jewett
Rilo Kiley’s “Xmas Cake”, recorded for a charity compilation in 2003, belongs to a long tradition of bummed-out Christmas music, an indie-pop rendering of Charlie Brown muddling across that dark-blue water-color backdrop. The song’s first half is devoted to a shadowy picture of yuletide loneliness (It’s A Wonderful Life seems to be on the song’s mind, and with good reason) as Lewis’s narrator looks into a sad-looking holiday dessert like a mirror: “When I take off my make-up, I look old and defeated / I’m not so dangerous / Cry into my Christmas cake / Staring holes into me all night”. Built around a vaguely eerie waltz, “Xmas Card” trades in some of the baroque, spidery quality that defined Curisve’s The Ugly Organ, to which Jenny Lewis contributed around the same time as the recording and release of “Xmas Cake”. That vaguely uncanny aura manages to fit the track – a Christmas song from a band mostly interested in L.A. summers – into Rilo Kiley’s universe of sad adolescence and B-movie noir (when the song isn’t recalling Frank Capra, it’s evoking Sunset Boulevard).
Interestingly enough, though Lewis’s writing for Rilo Kiley frequently raised the political reverberations of interpersonal difficulties, “Xmas Card” might be Rilo Kiley’s most explicit piece of social commentary. The seasonal mirth of Christmas is contrasted against economic desperation: “There’s no more running water / Wrapping presents in the dark / Move into your car / Change where you park / Too bad that job caroling department stores fell through / But the new year is right in front of you.” In some ways, the band even approaches the subtle economic Leftism that runs deep in holiday fare like A Christmas Carol, linking nagging hopelessness to a season supposedly defined by hope. One can’t help but see a certain critique in the “Fa la la’s” that ring between the song’s glum chorus: “Cry into your Christmas cake / Don’t know what else to do”.
Eventually the song lifts into a major key, as Lewis, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar that blossoms into broad harmonies, piano, harp, and one final eruption from Jason Boesel (whose drumming here is exceptional), sings: “And another angel came down / He was wearing only a cloud / He said, “Sew up the bad that you’ve done / Tomorrow, Christmas day comes.” The band moves toward optimism, even if it’s hard won and incomplete. “Xmas Cake” ends with a snippet of an 8-bit MIDI playing “Carol of the Bells”, the sort of darkly-humorous, archly-tacky interlude that Rilo Kiley had previously used to fill the gaps on The Execution of All Things, an album all about feeling young, down, and out in America. In some ways “Xmas Cake” feels like one last statement from that album, with all of the muddled sadness and intrepid promise packed into one winter day.