Back in October, Nathan suggested that I do a track-by-track take on Bob Dylan's unexpected Christmas album. I've taken the liberty of trashing Bob's other 2009 disc, Together Through Life, three separate times on this blog.
But I resisted for other reasons. Not only did Christmas In The Heart seem like a clunker, but I despise Christmas music. Treacly, staid, and, worst of all, explicitly Christian, Xmas tunes have never been my thing. In fact, to my knowledge the only good Christmas-themed songs ever recorded are Prince's "Another Lonley Christmas," Dump's brilliant cover of that song, and "Jesus" by Big Star. Those, and a great SNL sketch featuring comedic genius Horatio Sanz. Other listenable savior-related songs, like Modest Mouse's "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child," Slayer's "Jesus Saves," and The Birthday Party's "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can," among others, seem not to be sincerely about the birth of God's son (Jesus, not Nas).
But here I am with some free time on a Saturday, and an irrepressible curiosity about what a Christmas album from the Hibbing Jew sounds like. Is it a Tarantula-level disaster, or Masked And Anonymous-level disaster? Or, as the reviews suggest, actually OK? I only intend to listen to this thing more than once, so let's see:
1. Here Come Santa Claus
Dylan sounds cheery enough, backed by an all-male choir. The music is pretty much what you'd expect--part Americana, part pre-Elivs pop. The tune, rendered with a light skiffle, goes by in a pleasant 2:42. Not bad, not bad at all.
2. Do You Hear What I Hear?
Bob groans his way through this one, an odd pairing of syrupy strings, chime-y piano, and slide guitar. I'm hearing typical Jack Frost production so far--clean, upfront, but perhaps too perfect to give Dylan's band room to breathe. I'm digging the percussion.
3. Winter Wonderland
A female chorus sings the title hook, and the song's light Americana swirls around like tiny snowflakes in a snowglobe. Tidy, but oddly charming. A far cry from the dark, caustic songs on Together Through Life.
4. Hark The Herald Angels Sing
Looks like there's no originals here, and the song selection is pretty standard. But you expected that. This is a showpiece for Dylan's voice. People shit on it all the time, but I appreciate his command of bleating and crooning--it's occasionally a thing of beauty (listen to Modern Times' "Workingman's Blues #2"). Not so here.
5. I'll Be Home For Christmas
These songs are all rather sparse, but the production and backup vocals (the latter are rare on Dylan records) make them seem otherwise. They are also mercifully short. They don't overstay their welcome one bit--Dylan goes through 15 songs in just over 40 minutes. This one sounds a lot like the previous song, so that's why I don't feel like describing it.
6. Little Drummer Boy
Among the more execrable songs in the cannon of execrable Christmas music. Dylan's take at least has a cool, reverb-y guitar going for it, so I can pretend I'm listening to Tom Verlaine's "Cold Irons Bound" cover.
7. Christmas Blues
Dylan's take on Christmas is so out of touch with how modern Americans celebrate the holiday--from his album cover on down--you wonder why he bothered recording this at all. He's still on Tin Pan Alley in the era of the information superhighway, and even his sad Christmas song reflects that. A harmonica shows up, briefly.
8. O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)
This one's gained some notoriety its first verse, which is in Latin. It's totally in keeping with the classicist spirit with the album, though, and I suppose it's become notable for a Latin verse because there's little else of interest here.
9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
I swear I hear a Hawaiian inflection in some of the guitars on Heart, even on this song. I'm really impressed with the vocals on the album--Dylan has taken a genre that seems to play to his weaknesses, i.e. his lack of range, but he consistently nails these songs. The longest song on the album at barely over four minutes, it also goes by fast enough, even with the slow tempo.
10. Must Be Santa
The record's barnstormer, previously reviewed in a Critical Beatdown. The accordion reminds me of Together Through Life, but the band really barrels through this. The call and response is great--add another point to my previous score.
11. Silver Bells
The response to this album has been really interesting, because it deprives critics of their usual talking points. Dylan didn't write a single lyric for the album, and it exists outside of what I'll unhelpfully term "Dylan continuity." It's an aberration--a bizarre genre album that doesn't fit into the narrative about Dylan's work from Time Out Of Mind through Together Through Life. I suspect it will be remembered as what it is, a curio, sometimes entertaining but never great. We get not a whit of insight into The Man. But whatever it is, please don't ask yourself if he's fucking with us. He's always fucking with us.*
"Silver Bells" blows, by the way.
12. First Noel
This sucks too. Extremely corny, and I now want to recant my praise for Dylan's vocals. Strings, female choir, organ, blah, blah, blah.
13. Christmas Island
This song actually is Hawaiian-themed. I imagine Hawaiin's non-Christian indigenous inhabitants would take umbrage with their homeland being called "Christmas Island." But then the tune's inoffensive, which is not to say good.
14. Christmas Song
The last four songs have really taken a nosedive, quality-wise. "Song" superficially resembles the gentler moments on Modern Times and "Love & Theft", but lacks the wizened perspective of a song like "Mississippi." I guess no Christmas album would be complete without "Christmas Song," but my life will never be complete while I'm listening to it.
15. O' Little Town Of Bethlehem
Unbearably slow, sparse but without a hint of intimacy. The album--better than expected--ends after five shit songs in a row. Maybe I'll play this for my Mom sometime.
So 2009 has come and almost gone, and seen Dylan release two mediocre albums, something he hasn't done in the same calendar year since 1973. Still, I'm glad Bob's around, even if he's not.
*Fucking with us even though he's donating proceeds from Christmas In The Heart to charity in perpetuity. A nice gesture, but it doesn't mean he's not fucking with us. He's always fucking with us.