Album of the Week: Paul Kelly – Christmas Train (2021 LP)

Paul Kelly

As we enter the silly season and the working year begins to wrap up for some, slowly but surely our playlists begin to change, and before you know it, there’s just as much Christmas music being played as there is any other. As has been the case for more than two decades now, Australia’s own Father Christmas, Paul Kelly, has been responsible for the sudden uptick of Christmas cheer as we enter the closing stages of the year, mostly in the form of his classic “How To Make Gravy”. With his own Making Gravy tour becoming a consistent presence on December calendars in recent years, Paul Kelly returns this year with his Christmas Train, a collection of his favourite carols and songs for the festive period, sung by himself, his long time band and some of his music friends. At 22 tracks in length, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is an extensive deep dive into all parts of modern Christmas, from traditional hymns made over with a new vision, to modern favourites with a cheery turn, to everything in between.

With religion (as divisive as it is) playing a pivotal role in many elements of the Christmas period, multiple tracks on the release have both overtly and hidden religious undertones. “Silent Night”, a favourite of Kelly’s, features Sime Nugent and Alice Keath on guest vocals, with Keath providing a verse in German. Further to this, “Little Drummer Boy” plays a pivotal role on the release, with Kelly’s family helping with the arrangement and vocals. Other holy moments include “The Virgin Mary Had One Son” sung by Emma Donovan and supported by Linda and Vika Bull, “Tapu Te Lo”, a Maori version of “O Holy Night” performed by Marlon Williams, “Shalom Aleichem”, a Jewish song sung all year round with carol like qualities, “Surah Maryam”, a passage from the Qu’ran performed by Waleed Aly, and an Australian original hymn in the form of “Three Drovers” performed by Kelly, Keath and Nugent once more.

With most of these religious moments throughout the release being downbeat and solemn, Paul Kelly has managed to also curate the fun, wholesome and exciting periods associated with Christmas and the festive season.

A personal favourite of mine and one of the best live performances from previous years’ Making Gravy shows is “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, a jaunty albeit longingly hopeful and beautiful take on the Darlene Love classic from 1963 performed by Linda Bull. Not to be outdone by her sister, Vika Bull turns it up to 11 with the titular “Christmas Train”. Originally by the Bellrays, it’s red hot from front to back with Bull’s vocals the key to tying together the guitars, organs and drums. This is the exact song you’d expect to go off in live settings as the main set begins to wane towards the end.

Other highlights on the album include “In The Hot Sun of a Christmas Day”, a dark and grounding view of a steamy South American Christmas day where politics, police and military overplay their hand, while the classic rock (and very Paul Kelly sounding) “Christmas” slots in very well in the opening quarter of the Christmas Train. Further to this, “Swing Around The Sun”, a previously unreleased track by Melbourne artist Casey Bennetto, is a holiday season masterpiece, with multiple chord and key changes, all disguised in a bit of bluegrass and country. Kelly’s delivery and vocals are as distinctive and obvious as always and really bring the song through to another level in its closing stages.

Naturally, the album reaches it sentimental peak on the Paul Kelly classic “How To Make Gravy”. With the track evolving in its delivery, relevance and lyrics since its release 25 years ago, this new (and improved) version of “How To Make Gravy” almost manages to hide the sadness of a song ultimately set in jail that also touches on the topic of adultery. Closing out on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, performed by Alma Zygier, Paul Kelly has managed to pull together the feeling and essence of Christmas all too well. The nature of it being a compilation lends it to being long in length and slightly self-indulgent, but doesn’t take away from what the release sets out to achieve. Get around and aboard the Christmas Train, the locomotive where the tracks are never down for maintenance, always runs on time and gets you to your destination safe and sound.

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Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is out Friday 19 November.

Header image credit: Michael Hili