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Ryan Sutherland’s new single 'Church Bells' is refreshingly honest about Christmas during COVID 

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There’s no shortage of holiday songs with a rose-colored view of the world. Radio stations and online streaming services gift us stockings overfilled with tunes proclaiming peace on earth and touting the virtues of the big man in the red suit.

But the 2020 holiday season feels different, and singing of Christmas cheer while ignoring the hardships of the year — particularly those brought on by COVID-19 — feels disingenuous at best.

Rochester singer-songwriter Ryan Sutherland, however, is keeping it honest about the yuletide ennui he’s feeling this year. With his new single, “Church Bells,” which he describes as “a workin’ man’s Christmas song,” he gets deeply introspective — and a little macabre — while managing to make the whole thing sound rather upbeat.

The time-tested trope in which the songwriter fears he’s repeating the failings of his father gives the song added weight, which only feels heavier in the pandemic era:

“Used to bury in work, they'll be no work today / We're all furloughed, but them thoughts all stay,” Sutherland croons.

As Sutherland strums with a tinny, but tuneful guitar tone, the ’60s vibes are strong — in no small part due to Ben Morey’s contribution of pipe organ and drummer Alex Coté’s streamlined sense of timekeeping.

The festive quality of the music is largely attributable to the literal tubular church bells on the track, also played by Morey, who recorded “Church Bells” at The Submarine Sound Studios and the sanctuary of South Wedge Mission.

But the feel-good sounds are consistently undercut by the hard-hitting emotional reality in the lyrics:

“We can't stand the pain, and you know there ain’t no dreams to chase / But it's all fine and cool: I’ve got enough beer to wait out the plague.”

The sense of stagnancy and despair felt during this extended quarantine builds as Sutherland launches head-long into the melancholic anthem in the chorus, with its Bruce Springsteen-like approach to instrumental grandeur and impassioned, everyman sensibility.

And although Sutherland wears his sadness on his sleeve, the song itself is so catchy and tightly crafted, its bittersweet quality — particularly during the often feigned joy of the holiday season — is not only forgivable, but entirely welcome.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at

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