Paul Kelly “Christmas Train”

Cooking Vinyl Ltd, 2021

Australian Paul Kelly has recorded a view of Christmas for the world.

The Christmas Album has a very mixed reputation in the UK, but in America, it is much more part of the cultural annual cycle, and through their childhood experience, certain Christmas albums have had a profound influence on some surprising modern musicians. Probably the first recognisable Christmas Album was by Gene Autry who included the 1939 song ‘Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer’ and his own ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ on his Christmas album for Columbia setting the standard in the process, with classics of the genre released in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Elvis, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Phil Spector, James Brown and later by artists including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Nick Lowe, and Bob Dylan.   While kitsch certainly is found aplenty in some Christmas songs, others show the marvels of centuries-old songwriting traditions, folk forms and songs fit for the Great American Songbook. Joining this tradition is Australian artist Paul Kelly with his ‘Christmas Train’, and just remember, Australians have their own cultural take on Christmas which is not simply Dickensian or based on the croon of ‘White Christmas’. Paul Kelly has already made a significant contribution to the modern Australian Christmas which his own Christmas classic ‘How To Make Gravy’ about Christmas in jail.  And Paul Kelly delivers in spades, this is a true celebration of Christmas in all its many hues and traditions, there is a genuine Christmas spirit permeating the whole record without any obvious sense of negative irony or satire.

For his celebration of Christmas, Paul Kelly has selected 22 tracks that explore Christmas in the widest musical sense. There are traditional Christmas carols, self-written songs, a cover of Darlene Love, Jewish and Islamic songs, various 20th Century classic Christmas songs, a cover of a Christmas song by The Band, and a modern Australian singer-songwriter song. The backing is by Kelly’s own band and there are a multitude of guests, including various Australian artists, songwriters, broadcasters, and actors. At the heart of Christmas is a religious festival, and Paul Kelly covers this aspect on ‘Christmas Train’ in great and respectful detail. Kelly’s version of ‘Silent Night’, with Alice Keath and Sime Nugent, inclusively includes a verse in German recognising its Austrian beginnings but it also has an Hawaiian flavour referencing the Pacific Islands, the version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ features Paul Kelly’s family which brings a very personal feel to the song, and he covers the spiritual ‘Virgin Mary Had One Son’ recorded by Odetta in 1960 and in a version here with Emma Donovan. ‘Tapu Te Lo’, with Marlon Williams and Dhungala Children’s Choir, is a Māori version of ‘O Holy Night’, ‘Shalom Aleichem’, with Lior, Alice Keath and Emily Lubitz, may not be a Christian song but it fits perfectly with the religious mood of part of the album, which can also be said of ‘Surah Maryam’ which quotes the Koran with guest Waleed Aly, and there is also a version of the Australian Christmas carol the ‘Three Drovers’ about Christmas in the outback, again with Alice Keath and Sime Nugent.

Before anyone starts thinking this is a solemn record, Paul Kelly celebrates the other more fun aspects of Christmas equally as well.  The Bellrays would be proud of Kelly’s version of their song ‘Christmas Train’ with Vika Bull, and Darlene Love couldn’t argue with this version of ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) with Linda Bull. Paul Kelly takes everyone to Brazil with Caetano Veloso’s ‘In The Hot Sun Of A Christmas Day’. We get to hear a bit of Paul Kelly’s love of bluegrass in his version of Australian Casey Bennetto’s ‘Swing Around The Sun’. Robbie Robertson’s ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ is given a bluegrass makeover in a track originally recorded in 2003. ‘The Oxen’ is a Thomas Hardy poem set to music and celebrates the role of animals in the folk tradition which goes back to at least the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The animal theme is maintained with ‘The Friendly Beasts’ recorded with Kasey Chambers and Dan Kelly, which belongs to the centuries-old folk tradition recalled by The Louvin Brothers and celebrates talking animals. It is inconceivable that a Paul Kelly Christmas album would not include a version of his own Christmas classic ‘How To May Gravy’, and the version here does not overplay the sentimental side of this tale of adultery and prison life. A Christmas album without Santa wouldn’t have seemed quite right, so ’Intonent Hodie’ which is a Latin Hymn from the Middle Ages is included in a version with Alice Keath. The ‘Christmas Train’ finally pulls into its destination with the doo-wop classic, ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’ with Alma and Willie Zygier.

Paul Kelly’s ‘Christmas Train’ is a long way from a Christmas cash-in record and represents Kelly’s own views and detailed research on what makes Christmas in the modern world in all its variety of sounds and cultures. In a way, it is a reflection of Paul Kelly the artist, who, while being a country and bluegrass influenced Australian, he is also the epitome of a true world artist. If you have always had an aversion to Christmas albums, ‘Christmas Train’ may just be good and different enough to change your mind. On the other hand, if you have never heard Paul Kelly’s earlier work, this gives an excellent insight into him as an artist, even if it is full of Christmas spirit. However, we all know how warming and enjoyable a good spirit can be.


About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Great review Martin. I know Paul Kelly and his is a fabulous artist who should be better known over here. An Aussie icon. Regards Andy