For me the best Christmas music contains truths about the emotional complexity of the season: from the drunken conflict of Fairytale of New York to the aching sadness of River by Joni Mitchell. Too many recent Christmas albums seem content with cliched offerings or weak cover versions of classics designed to capitalise on the streaming algorithm, rather than having anything meaningful to say about the season.
Luckily for us then our resident reality check heroines Pistol Annies are here to offer us something fresh with their brilliant new Christmas album Hell of a Holiday. We last found Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe on the Interstate Gospel, searching for comfort in Jesus and dealing with heartbreak, inertia and family trouble. Christmas then, being the time of year where women and relationships are stretched to the limit, is a natural fit for their songwriting skills.
The title track takes inspiration from their ‘Hell on Heels’ anthem, casting a sardonic eye over the insanity of the holiday season. It’s the kind of Christmas song that could only be written by women who do their best to survive the madness with a smile on their faces and a glass of wine in their hands.
Snow Globe is fun and frothy, sung as a straight love song. I kept expecting some kind of sarcastic lyric but it’s unexpectedly sweet all the way through. There’s even some saxophone on these opening two tracks, just in case you were thinking it was all going to be pedal steel and misery.
But if that song was too cheerful then it is quickly followed by a classic Annies country song about that useless husband of yours on ‘Harlan County Coal’. Angaleena Presley sounds fanatic as always on this one, her wicked spoken intro setting up the sass.
They take the humour even further on the naughty Come on Christmas Time. The lyrics are hilariously disturbing if you think about them too much but it’s all a bit of fun and by all accounts they had a riot writing this one (with some even more racy lyrics edited out too haha).
To show this isn’t all puns and put downs they then include a classic country cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘If We Make Through December’, with Miranda on lead vocal. As always she proves herself to be one of the best country vocalists ever, bringing gravitas to this story of poverty and despair. They also cover Sleigh Ride which offers some uptempo fun, a nod to sixties girl groups and that old Phil S**tor classic Christmas album. The band have never included covers on an album before, relying exclusively on their own songwriting, but both these songs work well beside their originals.
Make You Blue gives each Annie a moment to shine, a reminder to each other to keep positive despite the hustle and bustle of Christmas. On ‘Believing’ they also share the lead with a quiet moment of reflection on the meaning of Christmas. It’s a lovely reminder that everyone ‘believes’ in different ways, for different reasons and that’s what makes the day worth all the stress.
Ashley Monroe gets a solo moment on ‘The Only Thing I Wanted’, her voice sounding absolutely glorious. It’s wonderful to hear her so well considering everything she’s been through this year.
To write a whole album about Christmas without relying mainly on standards and hymns can be a stretch even for the best of artists. What the Annies do so brilliantly here is to return to the gospel theme of their last album as inspiration for their originals. Leaning on Jesus makes no reference to the time of year but underlines how faith can get you through difficult times. Joy feels like a quiet moment of collective prayer. The album highlight for me is ‘Happy Birthday’ a wry and rueful tribute to Jesus himself, apologising for the mess we’ve made of December 25th. These songs show a realistic and modern take on religion’s role in women’s lives, suggesting a full gospel album would play to their strengths too.
They finish with a spine tingling version of Auld Lang Syne, reminding us to cherish friends and keep hopeful for the future. To hear them sing together again is a miracle in itself.
Naughty and nice, fun and funny, thoughtful and true – the Pistol Annies offer an honest and welcome celebration of the season. Escape your Hell of a Holiday by listening to this one on repeat.