After the year we’ve had, now finally limping to a dismal conclusion, the easy cheer of Christmas feels a little like saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. The snow falls gently in the quiet darkness outside, and the Christmas tree glows in its corner, but I don’t feel the things I’m supposed to feel. Instead, I feel heaviness, anxiety, and fear. The familiar tropes of Christmas seem cheap and overplayed, inadequate to the madness all around us.

So I haven’t been much in the mood for Christmas music this year. It was only after a friend told me Low had released a new Christmas single that I acquiesced. Hearing it, though — a lovely, somber song called “Some Hearts (at Christmas Time)” — I played it five or six times without stopping, and then traced my steps inevitably back to Low’s 1999 EP, Christmas, one of the few Christmas albums I keep on annual rotation.

And there, in the same eight songs that I’ve known and loved for years, I found the Christmas antidote I hadn’t quite known I was looking for.

If Christmas means anything, Low seems to be saying, it has to begin by being honest about the heartache all around us.

Low’s Christmas is an unassuming little eight-song album, with three Christmas classics (“Little Drummer Boy,” Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” and “Silent Night”) and five originals. It’s become something of an oddball classic in the Low catalog. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices blend in a gentle, holy consonance, tinged with melancholy. It has a gravitas and seriousness we’re not used to in our Christmas music. Low’s Christmas songs speak as much in the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves. The words gesture beyond themselves toward holy mysteries.

Low’s Christmas is a sad Christmas — an aching, forlorn Christmas. It seems to struggle to come to terms with the idea of Christmas at all. It doesn’t pretend that all is well with the world; instead, it works to subvert the commercialized, tinsel holiday we’ve created.

The opener, “Just Like Christmas,” describes a snowy ride to Stockholm backed by sleigh bells — a postcard Christmas. “You said it was just like Christmas,” Parker sings; “But you were wrong. It wasn’t like Christmas at all.” Instead, it’s a trip to Oslo in the second verse that’s “just like Christmas,” when “the snow was gone, and we got lost” and “the beds were small.” A little later, Low’s cover of “Blue Christmas” reminds us that, for many, Christmas is not a joyful time at all (“I’ll have a blue Christmas, that’s certain… when that blue heartache starts hurtin’”).

The EP ends with the brief, haunting “One Special Gift“: “After we’ve spent all the money on nieces and nephews, and a couple of friends/There’ll be just enough left for one special gift, for one special guest.” On its face, it could be nothing more than a simple love song about saving a little money to buy a gift for your special someone. But in the context of the album, it could never mean simply that. The money, notice, is all spent. Who is this “one special guest” to whom we can give “one special gift” that doesn’t cost any money?

But it’s the album’s challenging centerpiece, “If You Were Born Today,” that hits the darkest, most subversive notes. It’s the most accomplished and memorable song on the album, and it’s worth quoting in full.

If you were born today
We’d kill you by age eight
Never get the chance to say

Joy to the world and peace on the earth
Forgive them, for they know not what they do

Blessed are the meek
And blessed are the humble
Blessed are the ninety and nine

Deny the flesh
Deny all that’s evil
Tonight you’ll deny me thrice

If you were born today
We’d kill you by age eight
Never get the chance to say

It’s a jarring song, and it never lets up or affords us any glimmer of hope. At the end, just when we’re hoping for some relief or resolution, it doubles down on its unsettling premise.

“We’d kill you by age eight” might not quite work as theology — God’s plans, I hope, can’t be thwarted by human wickedness — but as an artistic sentiment, it works perfectly. In a world overrun by evil, it’s hard to imagine the little baby Jesus, meek and mild, making any difference. All those lovely things Jesus said, sung with such conviction and longing, are bracketed off and qualified by the violence of our present reality. It’s a song out of our present moment, a song from the miry pit, when the wicked close in around us and we lack the faith to hope at all.

Graham Greene once said that as a novelist, he “must be allowed to write from the point of view of the black square as well as of the white: doubt and even denial must be given their chance of self-expression.” In Low’s oeuvre, Sparhawk’s songwriting in particular tends to come from the black squares, and that tone gives Low’s quiet songs of faith and hope (e.g., Parker’s “The Plan,” the lovely “Weight of Water“) their power. As every drawing teacher knows, it’s the contrast between light and dark that makes for real verve and substance. But there are few better examples of Low writing from the black squares than “If You Were Born Today.” It’s a devastating little salvo, all the more so because it’s set in the context of a Christmas album, usually the domain of comfort, peace, and sentimentality.

Low’s new Christmas song, “Some Hearts (at Christmas Time),” carries on in the same vein. “Some hearts will break at Christmas time,” Parker reminds us. “Some hearts are lost, they’re tempest-tossed. Born on their knees, they’ve lost what they need.” Christmas isn’t all hope and cheer. And if Christmas does offer any relief, it has to go beyond the shallowness and excess of our cultural Christmas (“Some hearts find peace, a sort of release, not found beneath a Christmas tree”).

If Christmas means anything, Low seems to be saying, it has to begin by being honest about the heartache all around us. It can’t always be a white Christmas — it has to be a blue Christmas, too. We have to feel the utter hopelessness and misery of our situation, and instead of turning too quickly to the familiar forms of hope and light, it has to be all right to sit in the darkness for a while.

I hope so. Because this Christmas, that’s about all I can muster.