Bob Dylan – Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan, at least in my eyes, is an institution. I have never heard a single album or even full song by the man*, and I could not recall a single line of music he has ever done, unless it’s something that’s been covered by someone else, yet I know exactly what his voice sounded like in all his various eras, I know his history as the reluctant hero of the musical protest era of the 60’s, and I know that he is the most respected songwriter, comma, period. That was an incredible run-on sentence, and I knew I couldn’t let this wondrous Christian holiday without talking about the god-damned Bob Dylan Christmas album, also known as Christmas In The Heart, also also known as holy crap what is this:

I suppose before I undertake what will undoubtedly be a rather sparse writeup of the actual music contained herein, I should make a few admissions. For one, I hate Christmas music. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas, I think it’s a nice holiday despite the expensive gift exchange that brings about a month of retail hell on earth, but there’s something about the music that just bothers me. There are only a few pieces of music I can think of that only have occasional business being heard by anyone; the “Death March” by Handel (or the 3rd Movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35) for funerals, Pachelbel’s “Canon In D” for graduations (or the more popular “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” by Pachelbel protégé Greenday) for graduations, and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for when you want to commit a drug-fueled suicide in the bathtub. So yes, there’s a song for every occasion, but the thing about Christmas is that it has thousands of songs for just one occasion which amounts to mainly eating oneself into a coma after receiving gifts that somehow always seem to be worth about half of what you gave out, all while burning enough electricity on lighting houses and trees to power all those villages in Africa we keep hearing about, all with a sort of bastardized, commercially sterilized version of vague spiritual back-patting, all the while making sure not to offend people who don’t believe in the same Christmas Tree (sorry, “Holiday” Tree, right?)

So yeah, Christmas is fun but is generally meaningless except to serve as a cultural institution that reminds us that it’s “that time of year again”. In that way, Christmas and Bob Dylan are very similar, except one contains a lot more booze and used to actually be relevant. I will leave it up to you to decide which.

I really can not fault Bob Dylan for wanting to make a Christmas album. After all, his contemporaries have all done Christmas albums (heck, Johnny Cash did at least three), and Bob Dylan tends to bring with him a touch of class, no matter how goofy the idea is, and certainly a prominent Jew singing about the birth of Jesus is already stacking the odds against our aging songster. Still, Dylan is undeterred, after all, he claims to have grown up with the music, and songs speak louder than sense to our man, so onward he presses.

I picked up this album and began listening to it and indeed it is a treasure. Being someone who’s not particularly into Dylan and especially against Christmas music, I still found a lot to love here. For one, the instrumentation is lovely, and I mean that in all seriousness. Aside from the cheesy use of bells of the church and reindeer variety (the oldest Christmas cliche), the music is kind of a blend of old-style Country and the “less is more” sensibility of contemporary folk music. Songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is colored by clean, reverby jazz guitar chords and piano, with the drums set to “brushes”, with some angelic background singers. Then we have Bob Dylan singing.

It seems unfair to talk about this album without talking about Bob Dylan’s singing. Again, being totally opposite a fan of Dylan as what I am of Johnny Cash, I know next to nothing about the man or what life has done to him, but I will tell you that it has left him with a voice that sounds something like a chainsaw perpetually trying to start, and he has a lot of the same intonations, too. I will admit, even as someone who appreciates “off” singing, it is next to impossible for me to take this kind of music seriously when Dylan’s got a voice that would make Harvey Fierstein stop and offer him a cough drop. It should thus be no surprise that this is my very favorite Christmas album, not just for its sheer impossibility, but because Dylan’s earnest, straight-forward, and absolutely ridiculous performance is the antidote to everything that currently upsets me about Christmas.

This whole focus on clean-cut consumerism that has ruined the holiday and turned the month of December into a perpetual joke is only getting worse as times go by and the economy gets worse. Maybe it’s my 5 solid years of retail selling that has opened my eyes to this, but it really is a problem. From literally the day after Thanksgiving, when we’re all parked outside of stores waiting for cheap laptops and “early bird” deals, to the day after Christmas when we’re sluggishly cleaning up decorations (or leaving them there until August, why not), the entire month just runs on auto-pilot. We have twice as much traffic, often twice as much work to do, and try as you might, you can not escape the Christmas music. It’s so robotic and soulless, it’s no small wonder that the suicide rate tends to spike just before the big pay-off.

This album serves well as a reminder that this music used to actually be music, and Dylan inserting his classiness into the music and doing his best, with a voice that sounds like it was designed by a joint venture between Pall Mall and Cuisinart, for a genuine love of the music, and without accepting a penny for his troubles (all royalties go to an anti-starvation charity, awwww), strips the gloss away and adds just a glimmer, albeit a fleeting one, of life into a holiday that needs it desperately. Hence, this is still not music I’ll be listening to in March, but next time December rolls around, perhaps I’ll be shut in and will once again avoid the retail rush (my temporary joblessness has allowed me to sit out of this holiday retail season for the first time in half a decade), and will spin this album again and feel the warmth of what Christmas is all about, and that is Bob Dylan, aging folk icon, croaking his way clumsily through “Hark, The Herald Ages Sing”. I fully plan on being very drunk at this point.

If all of that isn’t enough of a testament to this album being not so bad, check out the video to “Must Be Santa“, featuring Bob Dylan looking like a cross between Tom Petty and Tom Waits. I legitimately love this song and video, especially the line “Who laughs this way, Ho Ho Ho”, man that kills me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

*I have rectified this, by the way, because on the same ticket as this album, I purchased Dylan’s most famous album, Highway 61 Revisited, and will be enjoying that once I get back to Austin.

 

Like Album Du Jour? Why not make it official on Facebook! Also, why not check out my 2011 series of Christmas featuring The Good, The Bad, and The Twisted? It starts here with my favorite Christmas album ever

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11 Responses

  1. Nice review. I have loved Dylan’s voice since 1967 and hearing him on this album has also allowed me to connect with some some Christmas songs!!– an amazing thing for this agnostic/atheist and hater of Christmas music. For the first time I *felt* the shyness, fear and vulnerability of the Little Drummer Boy and felt the nearly broken-heart of I’ll be home for Christmas. And just plain loved Must be Santa and Christmas Blues.

    • Thanks for the compliment! I do find Dylan’s voice to be charming in its way, which is what I meant when I said I enjoy “Off” voices (Neil Young being another example, did you know he did “Little Drummer Boy” with Johnny Cash in their one and only duet?)

      For sure, despite the album initially making me laugh lots at the sheer surrealism of it all, I found myself really enjoying a lot of these songs.

  2. Dylan’s odd. For years, I hated him, mostly because of Mr. Tambourine Man (which is an awful song, I don’t care what anyone says) but I’ve become steadily intrigued as I hear more, and I appreciate how he stubbornly does whatever he wants. I now genuinely like the guy, and the music.

    No idea what to recommend past Highway 61, but of interest to you might be Nashville Skyline, in which Dylan adopts a sort of pleasent singing voice and duets with Johnny Cash on one song.

    • Yeah my roommate also has a vinyl copy of John Wesley Harding that I hear is a great album. I am looking forward to hearing more, but yeah I haven’t even heard this “Mr. Tambourine Man” song, shows you how selectively sheltered I am!

      • Mr. Tambourine Man (the original 4 verse version, not the Byrds’ abridgment) is probably the best Dylan song I’ve heard as far as poetic imagery that you really FEEL (namely, the sense of ambling down the street/sidewalk/beach in the middle of the night in a completely in-the-moment afterparty drunk-happy state).

        I’d recommend Blonde on Blonde after Highway 61. It’s a big beautiful swirling wintery monolith of an album that I find perfect on cold days with thin afternoon sun and wisps snow whipping over the road. And I’m sure it would suitable on the nights of those types of days. And other times too.

        Anyway, this is a heck of great review for Christmas in the Heart from someone who hasn’t (hadn’t, I guess, seeing as this is a year old) heard much from Bob Dylan before. I think in the world of music criticism, you’re right away one of those people that “gets” this Bob Dylan guy. (e.g. “a reminder that this music used to actually be music” …based on what I’ve listened to [and heard and read], that’s really approximately describing Bob’s whole career MO.)

        I just listened CitH for the first time yesterday (hence the fact that I’ve found this page and am rambling on like this), and what you said above pretty much sums up my feeling…though sometimes he really pushes the croaking (failing chainsaw! ha), despite certain songs (like “Drummer Boy”) giving you the impression that it didn’t HAVE to be this way. But hey. It keeps up the whole surreal “am I really listening to this?” effect. And I agree: the instrumentation is all at once polished and organic and just plain TASTY, and just achieving that seems to be a rare victory in contemporary recording.

        And “Must Be Santa” is awesome. The Christmas music radio canon really should consider adding this recording to the lineup.

  3. Also, God almighty, some Dylan website has plugged this blog and I’m seeing a bunch more viewers…

    Hi everyone! Sorry about the mess, I didn’t expect so many guests!

  4. Funny review. Gosh, and you live in Austin as well, Mr. Du Jour. Maybe I’ve even seen you at Whole Foods DT. John Wesley Harding is a great, great, album. His voice has no rust. Freewheeling’ Bob Dylan is astonishing. Bringing It All Back Home (#5) def worth a listen, even though it contains Mr. Tamborine Man. And Blood On the Tracks features “Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Heart”, which ought to keep yu paralyzed again and again.

  5. How could anyone who has never heard a full song Bob Dylan song know “exactly” what his voice sounds like in all his various eras. 73-74-75-76 are four different eras right there, not to mention 78-79-83-86-88-90, it goes on and on. 2002-2009 youve easily got at least five entities there in less than a decade. Despite the wobbly start to the review, I enjoyed hearing your impressions and writing. Thanks.

  6. i love bob dylan, he is one of the best singer songwriter ..’

  7. […] you may have heard from somewhere that I am decidedly NOT a fan of Christmas music. Without going back into all the nasty opinions I […]

  8. […] being a bit of a Christmas music hater, so I don’t have any special attachment to “The Little Drummer Boy”, especially […]

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