Like Petrolheads are mad about cars and Cureheads have a thing for Robert Smith, Kate Rusby is a Holly Head. If you hadn’t already spotted from Sweet Bells, While Mortals Sleep, The Frost Is All Over and Angels And Men, she is not only Santa’s biggest musical helper, but she is also an incurable Christmas nerd.
Obsession can lead an individual down many different paths, but in 2019, it has drawn Kate to her fifth festive long-playing offering. It’s one of the warmest Christmas albums you’ll ever encounter. That’s nowt to do with climate change. Winter is supposed to be the season of barrenness, of Jack Frost nipping at your nose and of needing your big coat. It may get dark at four o’clock and you may become cynically sick of Slade, John Rutter albums and Merry, Merry Christmas by New Kids On The Block by the second week in December, but Holly Head will illuminate and kindle hearts and hearths.
It’s the Christmas album you’ll still be compelled to play, guilt-free, at significant volume, in mid-May.
To begin at the beginning, the very first words that Kate sings are, “People awake; salute the happy morn.” It would take a bleary, grump-laden Scrooge to hear that early on the 25th and not feel somewhat motivated to follow her benevolent orders. When the penultimate track, ‘I Am Christmas’, presents us with, “I am warmth and I am light/ And I am kith and kin./ I am Christmas, let me in,” even Noël naysayers of Dickensian proportions ought to be moved to stand, Spartacus-style and proudly, defiantly declare “I’m Christmas.”
You’re probably more used to Christmas tunes where the music seems somewhat of a vehicle for the more significant words. Holly Head, however, is a modern folk album that also has seasonal lyrics. Even the traditional carols feel new: ‘While Shepherds Watched’ is lush, ‘Bleak Mid-Winter (Yorkshire)’ is atmospheric and from land-locked Barnsley, ‘Yorkshire Three Ships’ sounds like the sonic equivalent of a cracking real ale. The production values that Damien O’Kane brings to the party are the third wise element that ought to draw people to Holly Head from near and far.
A Rusby family Christmas has always been a massive deal. On Holly Head, the arrangements of the songs, resplendent with brass and the electronic effects that have become familiar additions to her sound over the last few albums, resound with the power of community that we’d all like Christmas to represent. “We’ll tune our hearts and raise our voice” (‘Celestial Hearts’) should become the perfect mantra to ward off the type of voice-raising that can occur in some households once a late-afternoon wine haze has descended.
Holly Head is a stocking full of fun. It reclaims the often emptily parroted phrase, “Merry Christmas” and genuinely reminds us that ‘Christmas Is Merry’. ‘Hippo For Christmas’ could bear the alternative title, ‘Christmas Is Daft’, as if you can’t be foolish at Yuletide, when can you? The notion of requesting a hippopotamus for Christmas, on the basis that it can live in the double garage, may bring some awkward last-minute gift demands from young’uns. There’ll be a widespread shortage of gift wrap in the South Yorkshire area if the idea starts to spread. Lumbering playfully, we also manage a sighting of that rarest of beasts, a horn solo.
Plus we get to update ourselves on how Big Brave Bill’s life has progressed since he last saved Christmas in 2017. No spoilers on this one. Suffice to say a lot’s been going on for our hero. You’ll have to hear for yourself.
You could ask for Holly Head under the tree at Christmas, but (aside from the retail eternity in the shops) Christmas surely begins with Advent on December 1st and Holly Head comes out on November 29th. That said, listening to these twelve songs for just over three weeks, you’re likely to add to your letter to Santa requests for excellent speakers, a mixing desk, tuba lessons and, quite possibly, your very own hippo.