Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart

Christmas does strange things to people.

The most sensible of office workers start wearing jumpers with reindeer and snowmen knitted into the pattern. Parents, who would otherwise tell their children to always tell the truth and not have anything to do with strange men who offer them sweets, go to great lengths to persuade their off-spring that a fat bloke with a beard and strange dress sense is going to sneak into their bedroom at dead of night and leave behind not just sweets but all kinds of other treats.

And Bob Dylan releases a Christmas album.

There’s been much talk about Christmas in the Heart (2009). The argument goes somewhere along the lines of “WHAT THE HELL WAS HE THINKING OF?” Dylan is, after all, the definition of a living legend. The kind of respect that is paid to him is usually only reserved for the dearly departed: John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. And so for the creator of Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisisted to have released a Christmas album of all things? Well, there must be something very rotten indeed in the state of all things.

It is, of course, all a load of old gibberish. Why shouldn’t the singer-songwriter who went electric to jeers of Judas, who turned his back on his unsought-for role as the figure-head of a counter-cultural revolution, and allowed his conversion to Christianity to inform Slow Train Coming astound his fans once more by releasing a Christmas records?

And, more to the point, why should Michael Bublé have all the best Christmas tunes?

From the frenetic feel of ‘Must Be Santa’ through to the inclusion of a cheeky pin-up picture in the album’s artwork, Christmas in the Heart is all about a 68 year old man having a bit of festive fun. Whether or not the artist responsible for this recording had ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘The Hurricane’ or ‘Maggie’s Farm’ in his back catalogue should not be of concern to us. Most likely such thoughts weren’t upmost in Dylan’s mind when recording the LP.

Dylan treats us to a selection of Christmas classics here. The choicw will surprise no-one who has ever bought any of a plethora of So-and-so Sings the Hits of Christmas albums. ‘The Christmas Song’, ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ are all present and correct for the secular music fans while the religious side is taken care of with treatments of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ (not that tune – the other one) and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ whose first verse Bob delivers in Latin.

They’re all delivered with Dylan’s gnarly, gargling vocal, a huge contrast with the clean-cut harmonies of his backing singers. And, in general, it works. While Booker T and the MG’s once approached their selection of Christmas tunes with a sense of over-cautious over-reverence, their one time contemporary has a gutsier approach. His rendition of ‘Hark the Herald…’ may not win him a place in the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Dylan is almost a caricature of himself in his delivery: “With an-GEL-lick HOSTS pro-CLAAAAIM…Hark the HEHH-rald AIN-gels siiiiiiiing”, but you can’t accuse him of not putting his heart and soul into it.

Elsewhere, ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas” gets a soft shoe shuffle treatment, ‘Silver Bells’, with its slide guitar backing, is delivered with a hint of Country and ‘The First Noel’ sounds like a good old sing-a-long.

Christmas in the Heart is at its best, though, when we’re in the territory of the less familiar. ‘The Christmas Blues’ swaggers around like an old drunk after throwing out time while ‘Christmas Island’ is the closest you can get to a musical version of a pina colada.

But it’s ‘Must Be Santa’ which steals the show. A riotous polka of a tune,  (complete with names of American presidents among a list of reindeer) this is Bob Dylan at his most unguarded and relaxed. Perhaps the answer to why he chose to do a Christmas record is simple: he gets to sing ‘Must Be Santa’ and have a fantastic time in the process, as is clear from the most cursory of viewings of the video that accompanies the song.

And so Dylan’s Christmas album , produced by who else but Jack Frost is an intriguing record, not least because it’s such a pleasant surprise. A case could be made for saying that if this was a recording by a complete unknown, not the most established of artists on his thirty-fourth studio outing, it would never have seen the light of day. But it did, we have it, and the world is a shinier place because of it.

Further reading: Smoke Fairies – Wild Winter review.

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