If you live in Australia, there’s an 11 out of 10 chance you’re familiar with Paul Kelly.
Kelly is one of the most decorated and celebrated songwriting icons on the continent, let alone the world, and is known to sell out the Sydney Opera House like it’s a local neighborhood club. The sheer volume of music he’s put out is astounding: twenty-eight studio albums, sixty singles, forty-two music videos, and he has contributed to ten film/television soundtracks and scores, so says the ever-trusty Wiki Lords.
Perhaps most famously of all, he’s been credited with one of Australia’s top holiday songs, “How To Make Gravy,” (1996) which has even gone on to claim December 21st as Gravy Day. The song is a hit like few others.
It listens like a letter from a man named Joe who will be missing Christmas on account of his being locked up. He describes relatives and loved ones who will be showing up, and wonders, “Who’s gonna make the gravy now?” as it appears it was the subject’s duty to supply this holiday staple. The song is delivered with such raw emotion and unique lyrics, that it’s both slightly comical yet terribly sad that this incarcerated man will miss his family dearly over the holiday, however, what seems to bother him most? Who’s going to make the damn gravy.
This Australian holiday classic is part of Kelly’s newly released 22-track holiday album, Christmas Train, which is the most culturally and sonically expansive Christmas album I’ve ever come across.
The album gently begins with what sounds like a faint heartbeat for “Nativity,” which soon leads to an icy acoustic guitar with Kelly’s signature gravelly vocals floating over top. It has a bit of a cold melancholy feel, and very much reminds me of Leonard Cohen.
Following “Nativity” is arguably the most recognizable Christmas song, as well as Kelly’s self-proclaimed favorite, “Silent Night.” The distant pedal steel coupled with the lullaby-like harmonies of Alice Keath, Sime Nugent, and Kelly leave you floating on a soft billowy Christmas-colored cloud, with visions of sugar-plums dancing in your head. The song alternates between first being sung in English and then to German, which is said to be where the song originated. This is just the beginning of Kelly’s sonic venture representing many different cultures around the globe.
Along with a jazzy guitar chord progression, Kelly talk-sings in “Swing Around The Sun,” the breezy third track on the album. Upon first listen, I was immediately jolted with feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality. It incites finger-snaps, and has a delightfully melodic vibe that feels like a Randy Newman track. It’s just a superbly bright, feel-good song. It has an incredible vintage swing-jazz feel to it. It makes me think of my grandparents. I can picture them dancing to it in 1945.
A more REM-feel soon emerges with the fourth track, “Christmas.” The song very much feels like “Taxman” by The Beatles with a more alt-rock edge to it. It’s a rad song, and does not have any semblance of sounding like a Christmas song other than it’s title and some of the lyrics.
And then it’s time for another world-splitting classic with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” featuring Linda Bull taking the reins on vocals. And as cheesy as it is, her vocals are as powerful as that of a raging bull. It strikes every (again) nostalgic chord, and is warm and cozy all throughout. It’s like a big blanket of familiar Christmas cheer.
Taking a left turn, “Arthur McBride” delivers all the feels of an old-timey Irish Christmas shanty. Just Kelly and an acoustic guitar cruise through much of the beginning, while the instrumentation slowly but surely builds throughout. The focus is very much on Kelly’s lyrics and storytelling. I get a strong urge to take a swig from some whiskey in the jar-o and scarf a slice of Shepherd’s Pie while listening to this song.
And then a little later down the line, it’s time for yet another classic in “Tapu Te Po”- or as most of us less-traveled Americans know it, “O Holy Night.” A beautiful acoustic guitar lays underneath the mesmerizing foreign vocals of Marlon Williams along with the eventual rich harmonies of The Dhungala Children’s Choir, which is sung in English. It conjures images of churches and flickering candlelight with illuminated altars and dramatic religious statues abound. The vocals are powerfully operatic with deep, rich soul that could shake mountains.
“Shalom Aleichem” follows with the siren-like “oohs” of Emily Lubitz, Alice Keath, and Lior, and then it’s an a capella voice with a beautifully haunting delivery. Hypnotizing Hebrew harmonies entrance in this song, and demonstrate the raw power and beauty of simple voices. The voice is most definitely an instrument, and that’s prominently displayed in this a capella track with highs and lows and in-betweens.
“The Friendly Beasts” is another one that stood out. It very much has a traditional country sway to it, with a bit of a sing-song child-like nature to it. The harmonies between Kelly and Kasey Chambers again are something to behold. I can see this one being a hit in Nashville. Another tune that whisks you away on a warm cozy cloud.
“In The Hot Sun of a Christmas Day” seems to be an official ode to an Aussie Christmas, as I can only imagine as a New York-native the sweltering heat being the norm on such a day. This song is just badass. Kelly’s vocals are almost dream-like, and there’s a bit of a western semi-psychedelic feel to it. The electric guitars moan and groan and the unique percussion conjure images of heat-induced mirages and the desert sand; a most unique feel for a Christmas tune.
And then we circle back to “How To Make Gravy.” On the surface, it is a very unsuspecting song, and upon first listen sounds like any other 90s indie rock track. But it’s Kelly’s lyrics and powerful vocals that have engulfed listeners, especially those in his homeland of Australia.
There’s no chorus, it’s just a straight shot of heartfelt emotion with descriptive detail about the people the subject loves and will miss, and the connectedness that the holiday brings that he will in turn be missing out on.
“And don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang / And give my love to Angus and to Frank and Dolly / Tell ’em all I’m sorry, I screwed up this time / And look after Rita / I’ll be thinking of her early Christmas morning,” he sings.
It really is an incredible song, and the more you listen to it, the catchier and more impactful it gets. I can’t help but wonder Kelly had any inkling this song would take off the way it did.
“Christmas Train”, the titular track, indeed hits like a runaway train with a fuzzy buzzy guitar riff and near-punk rock energy. Definitely a track to have a dance party too. Featuring Vika Bull on vocals, the song is ripe with all the energy and excitement one might feel at the beginning of festivities when you’re ready to PARTY.
The album ends with “What Are You Doing On New Year’s Eve,” which again tugs on the heartstrings of those that are prone to nostalgia and sentimentality. It’s a gentle and jazzy ballad with vocals spearheaded by Alma Zygier. Her vocals over top of the jazz-soaked guitar chords are that of a dreamy lullaby that could warm the coldest heart. It’s so beautifully easy on the ears, and Zygier’s vocals make me think of Billie Holiday. If I had my way on New Year’s Eve, I’ll tell you what I’d do: I’d have Zygier sing me to sleep to dream about swaying on a hammock in Byron Bay or Bondi Beach with nary a care in the world.
In Christmas Train, Kelly delivers a beautiful sonic tapestry that includes cultures around the globe to craft a truly unique and all-encompassing album. It’s easy to scoff and roll your eyes when hearing about new Christmas albums and the like with many simply beating a dead horse, but Kelly takes that horse, revives it, and trots off with it in an entirely new and vibrant direction. He accomplishes a difficult feat in making a holiday album that pulls from the tried and true classics, to unique lesser-known tracks that many less-traveled Americans like myself may have not heard. The range of sounds and musical stylings on this album are truly astounding and spectacularly vast.
His collaborative efforts are an enormous factor in what makes this album stand out, too. The many different voices that come and go resonate so strongly, and you truly never know what you’re going to get next, like opening that strange-shaped box under the tree. Could be a new electric razor, could be a Nintendo Switch, but either way, we will soon find out.
I am not a Christmas album aficionado nor do I play one on TV, but Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is one that does not disappoint through it’s whopping 22-track entirety.
Photo by Michael Hili