Album Review: Lori McKenna’s Christmas Is Right Here

Last Updated on December 4, 2022 by Lil Ginge

Traditions are essential to Christmas. And in that spirit, listening through Lori McKenna’s Christmas EP Christmas Is Right Here is fast becoming an annual Christmas tradition for me. As soon as the stringed lights go up and the frost hits the ground while we digest our Thanksgiving turkey, it’s time for me to digitally drop the needle on this tiny but heavy holiday hitter.

Lori McKenna’s Christmas Is Right Here album cover

Christmas Is Right Here is now essential Christmastime listening for anyone who wants to touch the deeper and more authentic emotions of the holiday season. Each track on this short piece of Americana transports us back in an instant to the Christmas, Chanukah, Diwali, or other holiday traditions that permeate our minds during this nostalgic and festive late Fall / early winter time of year.

Nostalgia for Our Christmas Past

The nostalgia on Christmas Is Right Here runs deep. With old family photographs from 1975 strawn about the festive table. Sunday hymns forever seared into our memories sung verbatim around the tree. And our lit-up high school evoking the dreams and laughs of our younger glory days. As we creep by in our battered 2010 Toyota at midnight on December 22nd. McKenna sings on “Christmas Without Crying”:

Any mall Santa Clause will take you right back

Or the church bazaar that your mama worked at

We all know we can’t buy time but we damn sure try

Little make believe to make the real world make a little sense 

“Christmas Without Crying”

A major theme running through the lyrics on the album is the push and pull between chasing our adult dreams and the longing for our more innocent childhood. Times with family around a crackling fire, watching A Miracle on 34th Street on a snowy 1980s suburban Christmas night. But even when we can almost smell, taste, and touch it, those memories feel almost as far away as the North Pole.

Yet, no matter how far away the memories seem, we can’t help but want to return to that innocence. Of waiting at the top of the stairs while our parents ready the presents on a chilly hot chocolate night.

Christmas Dreams Made, And Those That Are Lost

Another major theme of Lori McKenna’s Christmas Is Right Here is the beauty of chasing our dreams, joyfully reflecting on those that have come true, and sadly reflecting on those that we’ve lost. The songs are filled with wistful guitar harmonics and longing slide riffs. Reminding us of how we’ve chased the dreams we wish we could open up in little red-wrapped boxes underneath the Christmas tree. In tribute, McKenna asks that:

God bless the ones who never let it go

Who live their whole life inside a snow globe

Who reach for the stars and ain’t even close

Yeah, cause only they see em

– “Still Christmas In Nashville”

On “Still Christmas In Nashville”, McKenna pays special tribute to her music city compatriots. The guitar pickers in the smoky bars trying to will their dreams into truth. And the harried servers hustling in those pubs on Christmas Eve. Pining for their families back home in Dallas or Georgia or even eastern Massachusetts. The life of an artist is sad and lonely. Maybe never more so than during Christmastime.

McKenna’s evocative songwriting is incredible at capturing all the mixed and difficult emotions that come with the holiday season. Even the joyful emotions can be difficult and mixed with sorrow and pain. Nothing can ever be as pure as the white snow that glistened on our Christmas Eve suburban lawnscapes. Or at least the way it did in the movies.

McKenna’s Musical Arrangements Are Transfixing

Christmas Is Right Here is layered with the most delicate fingerpicking guitar. With lead electric guitar lines weaving and bobbing in and out of the chords and shimmering like tinsel on the tree. Lonely soprano saxophone callings bring a sophisticated urban feel of a Christmas Eve spent on the icy streets of Bleeker and 6th on a chilly Manhattan night. 

McKenna even achieves the one thing I didn’t think possible: transforming Paul McCartney’s incredibly cringe pop-rocker “Wonderful Christmastime” into something much more than just listenable. It’s almost magical, removing the cheesy synths and superficial cheer and replacing them with an actual truth at the core of a song we didn’t know was there.

Propulsive guitar and drums on “Hail Mary“, accompanied by lush string and hopeful piano, are an uplifting ode to the mother of Christ or maybe to the mother of us all as we leave and pursue our own Christmas dreams as adults. 

The album is never too sentimental; just honest and earnest. It feels authentic. 

McKenna’s Album Uncovers What Matters At Christmastime

Of course, for all the smell of pine, and taste of warm cookies, and the glow of colored lights, it’s the people from our Christmas past, present, and future that really matter. The people who are still with us, but maybe not for long. And those that no longer are. And maybe even some who haven’t arrived yet – our own personal ghosts of Christmas future. And that core theme never strays from McKenna’s poetic and heartfelt words.

The final track on the album, “Grateful” is the ultimate paean to gratitude, for a life well lived, the love we’ve been given, and even the mistakes that we’ve made. 

All the faith that I’ve been given

I’ll admit that some of it’s been lost on me

But there isn’t one ungrateful bone in my body.

– “Grateful”

It’s that holiday spirit that more than anything McKenna urges us to hold onto and never let go of.

People grow old but love never leaves

Christmas is right here if you just believe

– “North Pole”

Thanks to Lori’s unforgettable Christmas EP, count me among the believers.

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