With an actual new studio album, The Zealot Gene, due in 2022, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is no longer the final record by the storied band! It is however the last one with Martin Barre, putting a (night)cap on the largest part of Tull’s discography. Although it’s a seasonal album, it is very Tull and would not have been a bad farewell if it was indeed the last record (as we all thought it would be). 16 tracks, over an hour in length…but how Christmas-y is it?
With a blast of flute, “Birthday Card at Christmas” addresses those whose birthdays fall during the holiday. A fine acoustic Tull tune (as they all are), it doesn’t sound particularly seasonal. Which will suit many of us just fine. Flute acrobatics stun the senses, trickling out the speakers like little blasts of hail. Moving on to “Holly Herald”, this instrumental medley has more of the Christmas flavour. Recognizable carols, with the flute providing the main melody. Andrew Giddings’ accordion is a lovely touch. Pure winter delight!
“A Christmas Song” is a Tull original, a re-recording of a 1968 B-side. It has always been an intriguing song, sparse and stark. Mandolin and acoustics ring true with the march of a drum behind. It is logically followed by a re-recorded sequel tune, “Another Christmas Song”, which has its own modern flavour based on keys, flute and electric guitar. This soft ballad is like the sound of a clean snow on Christmas day, though the lyrics offer more depth.
A jazzy instrumental “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”, led by flute, reminds of the old Mr. Bean sketch where he conducts the Christmas band, and goes all jazzy. Barre’s guitar here is sublime. When Tull get jazzy, they never disappoint. Just dig it and get down, in the snow! It’s impossible not to like, especially if you love instrumental acrobatics. The bass work by Jonathan Noyce just rolls. Next is the re-recorded “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow”, a 1982 original B-side. A little less direct, a little more progressive. A very Tull-sounding “Last Man at the Party” is another acoustic original. The lyrics relay images of a traditional Christmas party even if the music is just Tull being Tull. Bouncing flute, speeding acoustics.
“Weathercock” is a new version of the closing track from Heavy Horses. It’s more about traditional country living, but with winter imagery. Not an immediate song by any means, but fitting the vibe of the album. Moving on to “Pavane” composed by Gabriel Fauré, this lovely tune has exotic, smooth and challenging sections, but it’s not very Christmas-y. The original was a piano work, but this version balances the spotlight between players. More seasonal sounding is “First Snow on Brooklyn”. “I could cut my cold breath with a knife,” sings Ian. A beautiful string section backs this original song, somewhat epic, warming the soul like a hot coffee at Christmas.
You’ll love “Greensleeved” (a take on “Greensleeves”). It’s an instrumental version of the traditional classic. Its ties with Christmas go back to 1686 so it is not out of place here. But man does it swing! This is just fun, with monstrous instrumental mastery. Get up and dance to this brilliant little tune. Then it’s a remake of Tull’s “Fire at Midnight”, one of their most memorable Songs from the Wood. This take is more laid back, but is unmistakable as the Tull mainstay. Somewhat obviously, “We Five Kings” is Jethro’s version of “We Three Kings”, once again rendered in a laid back jazzy instrumental vibe. Challenging to play, easy to listen to. Check out Barre’s acoustic guitar solo work.
The excellent single “Ring Out Solstice Bell” conveys that Christmas joy. It’s likely the most Christmas-y of all the music on this album. Anderson has an occasional knack for a universal melody and “Ring Out Solstice Bell” lets them float in the cold winter air. A magical seasonal tune for anybody, even the Scrooges or Grinches on your list. If there’s only one tune you need on this album, making it “Solstice Bell”. It is, of course, an update of the original on side one of Songs from the Wood. (The 2004 single from this album had two exclusive B-sides as well.)
One of Tull’s greatest instrumentals in their long illustrious history was J.S. Bach’s “Bourée”. There is a new version on the Christmas Album. It’s different. Less swing, more relaxed. Still Tull but not repeating the exact same track from the past.
Finally the album closes on a rare Martin Barre original called “A Winter Snowscape”. Quiet, gentle, yet determined. Barre’s acoustic work is shadowed by Ian Anderson on flute. It is a perfectly understated closer to a unique Tull album.
Of course, like anything else, this album was reissued later on with a bonus live album called Christmas at St. Bride’s 2008. As a live album it deserves its own standalone review, but it’s unfortunate that to get it, some will have to buy the album twice. Not very Christmas-y…or perhaps the pinnacle of modern Christmas tradition?
On it’s own, this is a pleasant seasonal album to play while wrapping your gifts or celebrating with friends.