On 2nd day of Christmas … I listened to When Christmas Comes Around … by Kelly Clarkson

(cover image courtesy Atlantic)

Coming back around for a second go at creating a warm-and-huggable Christmas vibe – her first festive record Wrapped in Red (2013) made quite the seasonal impression when it landed, anchored by that powerfully emotive voice and a gift for somehow sounding traditional and original all at once – powerhouse singer Kelly Clarkson has delivered up some more festive loveliness in When Christmas Comes Around …, albeit with a sting in the tail.

That sting comes courtesy of her very recent divorce from her husband of eight years, Brandon Blackstock, who if opening song “Merry Christmas, Baby” is anything to go by, definitely deserved the citing of “irreconcilable differences” in the June 2020 filing for divorce, and very informs the opening track as well as the naming of the album which came about in recognition by the artist that Christmas isn’t a uniform thing for everyone.

“My purpose for choosing this lyric as the title of this project was to bring forth a sense of reality to the fact that we are probably in very different places emotionally When Christmas Comes Around… Some of us are consumed with a new love, some of us reminded of loss, some filled with optimism for the coming new year, others elated for some much deserved time away from the chaos our work lives can sometimes bring us. Wherever you are, and whatever you may be experiencing, I wanted everyone to be able to connect to a message on this album. Each year you may even have a new favorite depending on where you are in your life, but while change can be unpredictable there is no better time of year, in my opinion, to breathe hope into one’s life and let possibility wander.” (Wikipedia)

While the emotional darkness of the last couple of years is very much in evidence in songs like “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” which like “Merry Christmas, Baby” draws on a classic 1950s do-wop sound that contrasts nicely with the sober lyrics of regret and loss.

Reflecting a very Scandinavian mindset of holding dark and light in balance, the first and third songs on the album do their best through upbeat music and some lyrical hopefulness to seize Christmas back from the tarnishing that results from a broken relationship.

It’s not an easy task as fourth track “Merry Christmas (To the One I Used to Know)” makes affectingly clear as Clarkson realises that it’s tough to disentangle all those memories from that person who is no longer in your life but it can be done as she sings poignantly – “But Christmas eve my gift to me is dancing with your ghost” – leaving those special times in the realm of a once-a-year recollection of all but inevitable memoroes (“If I could feel the memory instead of turning back time / I know that the past is all that’s left of you and I”).

Clarkson has no choice but to address her conflicting feelings at Christmas because after all unless you’re damn good at wholly compartmentalising your life to a hermetically sealed degree, and let’s face it most of us can’t, you have to call out the broken relationship in the room and how it’s bound up with the season in ways you will likely never fully escape.

But as the selection of classic songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, “Santa Baby” and “Jingle Bell Rock” demonstrate, and hopefully upbeat tracks like originals “Glow”, a duet with Chris Stapleton (who brings a welcome playfulness to the album as well as blisteringly good vocals) evince, Christmas is wondrous and lovely enough to survive the very worst you can throw at it.

That’s why for all the rueful remembering that by necessity peppers When Christmas Comes Around …, it still feels like the warm-and-fuzzy hug that all the really good albums should feel like, with the album for all its newness and honesty, harkening back to the very best of traditional sentiments and sounds.

The real gift of this album is that manages a magical balancing act of modern worries and past escapism, ending up for all its pain and darkness on the sparkling side of the season, making it abundantly and refreshingly clear, especially in songs like “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me” (with Ariana Grande) that the season remains wondrously transportive and spirit-lifting in ways you don’t know you need until, well, you need them.

In amongst all the buoyant wishing for good and wonderful times, now and into the future, Clarkson stops and muses, such as in George Michael classic “Last Christmas” on the strange duality of a season that promises so much but can still be pulled down by the messier, darker times in life.

When Christmas Comes Around … is nothing but honest on that score, but as quieter songs like “Blessed” and “Christmas Comes Early” softly but passionately declare as they end the album, Christmas comes with more good than bad and it is that which suffuses this most wonderful of Christmas efforts which is determined throughout its mostly musically and lyrically upbeat run to remember that hope and love easily beat anything that comes against them.

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