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Did the John Lewis Christmas advert make you cry? The capacity to produce tears – and if so, how many – remains a barometer of success for the festive commercial, which has transcended its humble beginnings as a retailer’s bid at pushing product to become a national event of cultural importance. Over the years, this exercise in lachrymosity has been honed to a fine art: a cutesy story set to an acoustic cover of a pop song, delivered in hushed tones reminiscent of your mum reading a bedtime story. Works every time.
This year’s track then – a cover of Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 hit “Together in Electric Dreams” by newcomer Lola Young – is an interesting choice. The original is Eighties pop heaven. Keyboard power chords rub shoulder pads with new wave’s punchy synths. Pure euphoria. It’s maybe why a version as austere as this piano-led cover leaves the listener wanting so much more.
The lyrics – sadder than you remember – are ripe pickings for a soppy slowdown, and Young is no doubt compelling as she croons: “I only knew you for a while, I never saw you smile / Till it was time to go, time to go away.” But where the original derived much of its power from that discrepancy (the words pull down as the music soars), this cover doesn’t capture that same off-kilter appeal.
Young’s voice is a treasure. Here, the 20-year-old lends the song depth and warmth. But a quick Spotify search shows a musician capable of much more. On the handful of songs that she has released, the south London singer stretches her vocals in impressive directions, dipping into R&B, spoken word and ballads with ease. The John Lewis Christmas ad launched the career of Gabrielle Aplin; with any luck it will likewise open the door for Young, who deserves a big break beyond singing Eighties covers.
This instrumentally sparse version of “Together in Electric Dreams” is back to basics for John Lewis. Bread and butter. Tried and true. There’s no doubt it is a sweet accompaniment to the commercial’s equally sweet visuals. But considering the success of Celeste’s “A Little Love” last year – the first original track used in the commercial’s history – the safety of this year’s track feels slightly regrettable. Especially given the obvious talent of Young, which feels wasted on this minimalist take on one of the era’s most unabashedly maximalist hits.