Review: Paul Kelly’s Crafty Christmas Greetings

Paul Kelly/Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train/Cooking Vinyl
Four stars out of five

Anyone that’s followed Paul Kelly’s career over the past 48 years, or so, can likely attest to the obvious, that Kelly’s not only a superb Australian singer/songwriter of worldwide repute, but a multi-faceted musician as well. Aside from his ability to create instantly infectious melodies—songs that regale in the oddities and absurdities of the human experience, while also sharing sentiment and sadness in equal measure—he’s explored a remarkable array of sounds over the course of that career, from folk, rock, and country to classical, jazz and several other genres in-between.

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It’s fitting then, that his latest effort, the expansive Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train, encompasses a vast spectrum of holiday happenstance, courtesy of some 21 songs that include both traditional Christmas fare (“Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home,” “O Holy Night,” “Coventry Carol”) and contemporary material that effectively celebrates the season as well. Notably, too, Kelly employs a superb supporting cast on several of the songs, at times creating a chorale-like effect that enhances the elegiac embrace. In that regard, Kelly’s recitation, “Sura Maryann” dispenses with singing entirely, relying on only a solemn soliloquy.

That said, the reverence becomes the dominant theme throughout, and on certain selections—the traditional Jewish blessing “Shalom Aleichem” and the aforementioned “O Holy Night,” for example—the music takes on a certain sanctity that effectively underscores the meaning and purpose of the more pastoral selections. Other tracks (“Three Drovers,” “The Friendly Beasts”) find Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train following a middle route that veers from a light-hearted pop approach to a more reverential attitude. 

In that regard, some may lament the fact that Kelly plays a supporting role on several of these selections. On the other hand,the upbeat “Swing Around the Sun,” the folky “Arthur McBride,” a lithe and lilting “In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day,” the precise pacing of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and a pair of scorching rockers, “Christmas” and “Christmas Train,” offer the truest representation of Kelly’s affable approach. Genuine devotees ought to relish the daring diversity, but even the naysayers should appreciate the intent. 

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