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Christmas in the Heart: What was it you wanted?

October 15, 2009

Bob Dylan’s much anticipated Christmas album was released on Tuesday and reactions have covered the full spectrum from positive to disguisted, but most giving a polite 3/5 stars sort of review (a whole slew of reviews can be found at Expecting Rain). christmas_in_the_heart

In short, the album is a must for Dylan fans. It does however fall into the category of Dylan albums that I would not recommend to someone whose hardened ears I am trying to open to Bob. That said, the album is all that you can ever expect from any Dylan album: well-executed and exactly what Dylan wanted to record without regard for critics or fans.

There are several things this album is not. It is not sung by Luciano Pavarotti or Josh Groban. This has apparently been the source of great disappointment for many critics who decry his gravely voice. To listen to an album recorded by 68 year-old Bob Dylan and gripe about the timbre of his voice is like going swimming and complaining about the water. Reading smug reviews from self-ordained professors reminds me of the scenes from No Direction Home where the British concert-goers are talking about how bloody terrible Dylan’s electric set was. Christmas in the Heart is also not incredibly original, there is nothing written by Bob (no Positively 34th Street or Sleigh Santa Sleigh). The song selection is fairly predictable but with a few wild cards (Must Be Santa was new to me).

There are many strengths to the album. For one, it is musically tight. As usual, Dylan assembled a top-notch band to back him on Christmas in the Heart. There some great fiddle runs throughout and the accordion on Must Be Santa is awesome. Dylan himself deftly plays the electric piano throughout. The number of hymns on the album established a sacred tone for the album that is peppered with secular tunes. The backing vocals are in a 50’s Christmas special throwback style that do come off somewhat cheesy although less so in some songs than others. But after enduring Joan Baez’s singing on the Rolling Thunder Review I have no trouble handing Christmas in the Heart. Furthermore, the album is utterly sincere. It is not sloppy or canned, but was an honest effort on Dylan’s part and this sincerity is evident throughout.

The background vocals, Dylan’s voice and the quasi-swing style of the album make the album irreparably cheesy for many. If you want an album that is safe, simple and predictable sung by someone with a smooth voice, Christmas in the Heart is not for you (perhaps you should try this). But what did you expect from Bob Dylan? The man who spurned the folkies who would make him the voice of their generation by going electric at Newport. Then recorded a (good) country album that was followed by Self Portrait, probably the most bizarre piece in his lifetime of albums. He then wandered in the electric wilderness (Street Legal, Blood on the Tracks) for a few years searching for the Christianity that he eventually found (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love, et al.). Even since then he has been on a musical journey that takes him wherever he wants it to. Throughout his career he has shunned the demands of critics and fans alike and thus unfettered has produced a body of work that is as staggering in its breadth as it is in its depth.

However, if you are a Dylan fan (defined as owning more than Freewheelin’ and/or The Times They Are A-Changin’) do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Christmas in the Heart and bask in the fact that Bob Dylan has never been a one-size fits all crowd pleaser. If he were, think of what we would have missed: Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde, Saved, Good As I Been To You, Bringing It All Back Home, Infidels, and the list continues.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 7:53 pm

    Positively 34th Street gave me a chuckle.

    I liked your analysis. Some of the reviews I have read have commented on his vocal (which I have always found soothing) and I completely agree with what you said in return. I’m still yet to listen to this, and probably won’t until a couple of days before the 25th when I’m eating a mince pie and supping a mulled wine!

  2. savage henry permalink
    October 16, 2009 8:22 pm

    Look forward to the January release of “Groundhog Day in the Heart”.

  3. underdogsoldier permalink*
    October 16, 2009 8:44 pm

    Thanks for leaving comments!
    I am normally staunchly opposed to Christmas music this early but I made a rare exception for Mr. Dylan.
    All I can say about Groundhog Day in the Heart is that if Bob wants to record such a thing, I am sure he will do so – and I’ll probably buy it.

  4. Viator64 permalink
    October 17, 2009 2:40 am

    Excellent analysis of ‘Christmas in the Heart’. It is one of the best I’ve read thus far.

    Thanks for your post.

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