When Christmas Comes Around…., by Kelly Clarkson
For the record, I review this album upon request as someone who does not happen to celebrate Christmas. I have discussed my thoughts about the season on numerous occasions and do not wish to do so here today, but suffice it to say that not celebrating Christmas might appear to be a big handicap in reviewing music related to the festival. One would think that, except that the vast majority of Christmas songs are not really about the day itself or its meaning (which would probably be better, honestly, as a religious person), but are about love and relationships, and that is what one finds when one looks at the songlist for this album too, an album that blends Clarkson’s take on seasonal classics that are well-known by other versions and also includes some original songs of her own, as well as some interesting duet partners who provide something of interest besides Clarkson’s own voice. This album is the artist’s second and most recent foray into holiday music and it was released in 2021, or last year as I listen to it. Is it any good? Let’s find out.
The album begins with “Merry Christmas Baby,” which looks at a dysfunctional and broken relationship with the empty rituals kept without feeling, which somehow makes Kelly Clarkson look worse than her estranged partner. “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” is at least a clean if inessential cover of a popular standard and doesn’t overstay its welcome being under two minutes. “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” manages to make Clarkson appear like a Meghan Trainor celebrating cancel culture and being generally obnoxious, if at least tuneful. The next song, a mournful sadgirl piano ballad, “Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know), wants so much to pull tears of sympathy from listeners, but coming as it does after multiple snarky and bitter breakup anthems, does not seem like anything but a brazen attempt at emotional manipulation. “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” is a competent, well-produced cover of a familiar standard. “Glow” offers another change of tone, a flirtatious country-rock tune with Chris Singleton, that sounds lovely and is well-produced. If more of the album was like this it would be far more enjoyable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next song is a flirtatious and spare production of “Santa Baby,” which is flirtatious, even if one cannot believe that Clarkson has been good from earlier songs on this album. Santa, Can’t You Hear Me, featuring Ariana Grande, is well-produced, but features pretty nonexistent chemistry between the singers, and is pretty inessential. “Last Christmas” finds Kelly Clarkson giving a lounge interpretation of an 80’s classic that sounds like something one would hear at an average hotel bar by a slightly above average singer. “Jingle Bell Rock” is at least more lively, if nothing more than a competent cover version. “Blessed” is a spare and minimalistic and somewhat melancholy reflection that seeks to combine a feeling of being blessed with a recognition of the narrator’s sadness that claims virtues (like forgiveness) that the singer does not appear to be blessed with in abundance. “Christmas Come Early” is another melancholy song that shows Clarkson reflecting on her own sadness and the gloomy mood she finds around her, while also being filled with the chattering voices of children and adult contemporary production. “Under The Mistletoe,” with Brett Eldredge, returns to a generally pleasant flirtatious mood about reflecting upon the love one wants during the season, and is an obvious high point here. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a somewhat mournful song and not the Mariah Carey cover one would expect here, expressing Clarkson’s yearning for love with an excellent guitar solo. The album ends with “Christmas Eve,” with a mood of anticipation that is not entirely earned by the album that came before it.
This album is a classic collection of songs that is less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are enjoyable enough to listen to if one does not think too much about them, but this is an album that would have been bettered by two things. First, it would benefit from being without its worst three songs: Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You), Merry Christmas Baby, and the unfortunate cover of Last Christmas. Losing these three songs would be a major case of addition by subtraction, as their absence would allow the more poignant and touching aspects of the album, which is a fair bit of the material, to actually be believable instead of cynical attempts to manipulate sentimental audience members. If one heard most of the songs on this album individually, they would generally be enjoyable enough to listen to if one was stuck working in retail during the holiday season. As a set together, though, the album tends to veer wildly by tone. Most effective are either the flirtatious and upbeat numbers or the mournful and poignant ones, but neither of these moods fits easily with the other, and both of these moods are undercut by the snarkiness the album unfortunately begins with that tends to undercut my own emotional response to the album as a whole.