I have been asked by several people for my take on Bob Dylan’s new album CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART (cf. post on this blog, 26 Aug 09), and I have to admit that complying is no easy task. However, here, for what they are worth, are my decidedly non-expert seasonal comments! (also posted on the Bob Dylan Critical Corner site at: http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc).
I have been assisted in reaching a few conclusions by a number of sources: the “Dylan Christmas interview” which has been widely syndicated on the Web; the multi-author symposium on the album, with contributions from Toby Thompson, Sean Wilentz, Todd Harvey, and others, published in THE BRIDGE, No 35, Winter 2009, pp. 45-81; Michael Gray’s review on his blog; and some comparative listening to similar Yuletide material by Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley. So from one or other of these sources I know that 13 of the album’s 15 tracks were recorded by Bing Crosby (thanks, Sean); that Elvis did ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’, Dean did ‘Winter Wonderland’ and Nat did ‘The Christmas Song’; that ‘Must be Santa’ is a polka; and that Dylan doesn’t know whether Christmas Island exists (it does; it’s an Australian dependency in the Indian Ocean).
The question I have been repeatedly asked is: what is the point of this album?, and to that we can add: what is it doing in the canon? My first reaction is to take it as some kind of freak or sport, only very tenuously connected to anything he’s done before, and in all probability to anything he’ll do in the future. Attempts to link it to earlier Dylan albums don’t seem to get too far. It connects back to, if I mistake not, a mere two original songs in the canon that mention Christmas, ‘Three Angels’ from NEW MORNING and ‘Floater (Too Much To Ask)’ from “LOVE AND THEFT”. It contains not a single Dylan composition and thus aligns itself with GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU and WORLD GONE WRONG, but those are acoustic albums containing mostly folk and blues material, not retro pop songs. Insofar as Christmas is a Christian theme, it connects to the SLOW TRAIN COMING – SAVED – SHOT OF LOVE trilogy, but it has no evangelical pretensions and the music isn’t gospel. The retro arrangements hark back to elements on the last three albums of originals, but this is an album of covers. The revenues will go to charity and the album might be considered a (successfully achieved) commissioned job, which could link it to PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, but, despite Pretty Boy Floyd and his gifting of Christmas fare for the families on relief, outlawdom and Santa don’t have that much in common.
An album replete with 15 cover versions will certainly give Derek Barker some homework for any future new edition of his encyclopaedic THE SONGS HE DIDN’T WRITE: BOB DYLAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (even more so as Dylan fails to give any credits in the packaging); and conversely, won’t have anyone excavating for hidden quotations or crying wolf over alleged plagiarism. There is Eleven of the songs covered are Christmas pop songs; four – ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘The First Noel’, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)’ – are carols proper, regularly included in officially sanctioned events like the famous King’s College Cambridge Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; the last-named offers the novelty of Dylan singing in Latin in the first verse, following his official ventures into Spanish (‘Romance in Durango’ and ‘Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’) and Italian (‘Return to Me’).
I have enjoyed listening to this album, though once the festive season 2009 is over I will probably put it on file till Yuletide 2010. I certainly find it more listenable than either MODERN TIMES or TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE, and I believe other Dylan commentators join me in this. Perhaps we could see this album as the equivalent in the Dylan canon to A CHRISTMAS CAROL in the work of Charles Dickens, a beautifully polished minor gem, sentimental certainly but at the time dedicated to the best of sentiments – to the Christmas spirit of which Dylan sang in ‘Floater’, ‘all the ring-dancing Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves’ ….