Apparently 2015’s "Merry Christmas, You Are Loved" was so auspicious a debut for Ms Saran that, two years down the line, she’s returning to the same place. The homecoming theme runs throughout this record, yet if the place it’s in is the same, it’s a different performer we meet here: more confident, creatively matured and, well, finely seasoned. Most of what’s on offer now, may accompany a quiet evening in front of a fireplace, though, pieces like “I Have My Own Reindeer” oozing a family atmosphere, and still, there are moments that prompt one to shake comfortable numbness and let joy flow to the world.
An epitome of the album’s spirit, opener “Christmas Lover” – that marries Saran’s deliberately wintry, transparent vocals to THE TEMPTATIONS’ eggnog-thick voices – is where contemporary grooves feed into communal tradition, while the “baby, baby” of the title track links Jennifer’s soft seasonal wonderment to the spirit of Smokey’s miracles. Playful and elegant at the same time on the jazzy perennial “Sleigh Ride,” she’s embracing a too by-numbers music hall on “Swingin’ At Christmas Time” so, for all their lighthearted throb, the dance types of “Christmas Delight” – a perky duet with Cornell Carter – and “Merry Christmas To You” work better than simple ballads.
It’s a revue of sorts, instrumental interludes of tunes such as “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” peppering up the songs’ flow and an a cappella snippet of “You Are My Christmas Star” shaping a triumphant finale. Yet the bluegrass vibe and beats make “Soul Cake” genuinely special – reserved, if irresistibly infectious – with a “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” quote an icing on it all. There’s an impression that, had Ms Saran and her mentor, Narada Michael Wallden, let their hair down and let all these strings and brass kick in, they’d have a hit on their hands… but then, it’s Christmas and a time to relax.