Review Round-Up: Bob Dylan
Within the Bob Dylan canon, I’d say Christmas in the Heart will end up ranking somewhere between Self Portrait and the Victoria’s Secret commercial. The WTF factor is certainly there: When it was announced that, just months after releasing Together Through Life, the Voice of a Generation would be polishing off fifteen holiday nuggets for his first seasonal release– to say nothing of the album’s alledged inspiration by the Andy Williams Christmas recordings of yore, the inclusion of so many hokey Santa-themed tunes in the track list, the fact that the album was initially made available exclusively to Citi Bank customers, etcs.– the response amongst fans and critics alike was one huge, collectively dropped jaw and scratched head.
But I’m convinced that this is more than just a dreadful lapse in judgement by an artist old enough to be experiencing the first blushes of senility. Because just like the defiance on display in Self Portrait (not the worst Dylan album, but certainly the most baffling) and the oddly metaphorical weight behind the lingerie ad (given an artist of Dylan’s stature, a certain air of importance is present in anything he does), Christmas in the Heart makes oddly perfect sense within the larger context of his music and work. Which is not necessarily to say that the music has merits of its own– the jury’s still out on that one– but as a concept, anyway, the Dylan Christmas album works as both an extension of and a cheeky commentary on his latter-day excavation of classic American song; in their own way, these songs are just as much a part of our culture as the folk and blues sounds that were pilfered for Love & Theft and Modern Times.
In other words: Reading about the album might be more fun than listening to it. As befitting such a seemingly screwy project from a man of Dylan’s stature, the record has prompted some interesting– and at times heated– analysis of Christmas songs, American music, and Dylan himself.
Randy Lewis makes the connection between this album and Dylan’s overall obsession with American music roots:
Rather than simply a tossed-off session for his kids and grandkids, Dylan seems to be offering up an astute exploration of the roots of holiday music — Christmas records in particular — in the same way he has returned in various albums over the years to mine pop music’s foundation in blues, folk, country and gospel.
His version of “Must Be Santa,” with David Hidalgo squeezing reindeer-quick accordion, is directly inspired by the arrangement that Texas rock-polka group Brave Combo created on its 1991 gem of a seasonal album, “It’s Christmas, Man!” Better yet, there’s a video on the way, shot here in L.A. Dylan’s treatment of “Here Comes Santa Claus” goes straight back to Gene Autry’s 1947 version, with a guitar solo that mirrors the original, melodically and tonally.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, likewise, finds the album to be in keeping with Dylan’s overall musical sensibility:
After the initial shock fades, the existence of Christmas in the Heart seems perhaps inevitable. After all, the thing Bob Dylan loves most of all are songs that are handed down from generation to generation, songs that are part of the American fabric, songs so common they never seem to have been written. These are the songs Dylan chooses to sing on Christmas in the Heart, a cheerfully old-fashioned holiday album from its Norman Rockwell-esque cover to its joyous backing vocals.
Jesse Cataldo, too, appreciates Dylan’s exploration of the roots of these songs:
This enjoyable sense of exploration, which prizes levity in a genre that usually amounts to an artistic wasteland, is invaluable. It also proves how much life is left in the songs, and how much other artists have succeeded at butchering them (Rod Stewart comes to mind). It’s not hard to imagine a few of these versions sneaking in with the Burl Ives and Bing Crosby classics that define the season.
But the best review I’ve read comes from a conflicted John Mulvey:
Dylan’s purposes are uncharacteristically clear: all the proceeds from the album are being channelled in perpetuity towards charities – Feeding America in the States, the World Food Programme and Crisis UK in Britain – with the avowed intention to bring “food security to people in need.” His artistic motivations, however, are harder than ever to divine. “Christmas In The Heart” exists squarely in Middle America; a perpetual, disingenuously cosy 1950s of pipes, slippers and hygienic country swing.
Dylan has been tackling this milieu on his records since “Love And Theft”, but on those earlier records, whitebread culture was always satisfyingly adulterated by the blues – something which only really surfaces on the agreeably slouchy “Christmas Blues”, with Dylan preferring to attack “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” instead.
… but then again, there’s a palpable affection for the material running through the whole, bizarre endeavour; as if Dylan, always working away at the definition of Americana, had compiled a Theme Time Radio Hour playlist on Christmas, then decided to have a go at it himself.
Jim DeRogatis, though, just isn’t buying it.
From the faux-Currier and Ives cover art to the annoyingly precious arrangements, and from the beyond-predictable choice of tired holiday chestnuts to the chorus of backing vocalists who sound as if they could be the surviving members of the King Family, Dylan plays things beyond straight, adhering to the syrupy, schlocky pop sounds of the pre-rock era that also provided the worst moments on his recent albums.
Meanwhile, Scott Marshall explores the album from a different angle– a spiritual one. Marshall connects the inclusion of hymns on this album to the recent presence of gospel songs in Dylan’s live sets: “[Is] it possible to conceive that Mr. Dylan’s experience with Jesus, some three decades ago, wasn’t a passing fad?”