Almost lost in all the commotion surrounding Bob Dylanâ€™s new Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart â€” his first charity album, as the proceeds from all sales are being donated to hunger charities, according to his website â€” is a fair consideration of the music itself: where it sits in the context of Dylanâ€™s overall output, and how it relates to the decades-old genre of Christmas recordings by popular music artists.
For the last twenty years or so, and especially over the last decade, Bob Dylan has been honing a particular sound, especially in his live appearances â€” about 100 concerts per year on whatâ€™s been termed his â€œNever Ending Tour.â€ Dylanâ€™s aesthetic, which bears almost no relationship to that of any other artist in contemporary music, is a unique fusion of his own style of rock music (which in itself is a blend of many genres, including blues, folk, country, rockabilly, gospel, pop, and R&B) with pre-rock influences, such as western swing, bluegrass, jump blues, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. More ethnic sounds have been creeping into Dylanâ€™s work as of late, too, including the polka rhythms of his northern Minnesota youth, as well as Tex-Mex and French chansons, all of which gained prominence on his entertaining album released earlier this year, Together Through Life.
Given the revival of Dylanâ€™s interest in pre-rock musical traditions, it makes sense that he would now, from a musical point of view, tackle the timeless genre of holiday music, which in and of itself spans multiple styles and sounds. (Indeed, itâ€™s not for nothing that the back cover of the CD booklet sports a photo-illustration of the 1950s pin-up queen, Betty Page, dressed in a scanty Santa Claus outfit). On Christmas In the Heart, Dylan revels in the genreâ€™s eclecticism, turning in a bluesy version of â€œThe Christmas Blues,â€ a polka-infused â€œMust Be Santa,â€ and a tropical take on â€œChristmas Islandâ€ (as my son said disbelievingly upon first hearing this, â€œThereâ€™s such a thing as Hawaiian Christmas music?â€). Dylan even has a go at the 13th-century hymn, â€œO Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles),â€ tackling the first verse in the original Latin, Bing Crosby-style.
Dylan has taken his licks for some of his less-inspired forays into the holiday-music tradition. The album employs a corps of backup singers who trade verses with Dylan on several numbers, and instead of sounding like the soulful gospel choirs on his albums of the late 1970s and 1980s, these arrangements sound more like the sugary-sweet Ray Conniff singers, making for, to say the least, an odd juxtaposition with Dylanâ€™s craggy vocals.
A word about those vocals are in order: Dylanâ€™s voice, even at its best, is a topic worthy of a blogpost series of its own, maybe even a book. Suffice it to say that even for those (like me) who sincerely believe that Dylan is a masterful singer who phrases with the best of them, Dylanâ€™s voice has never sounded worse than it does here: raspy, phlegmy, downright scary. Itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone playing this music at a real holiday party; if Christmas music is supposed to evoke warm, holiday feelings, this sounds more like the soundtrack to Christmas courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge (even if this is a very un-Scrooge-like charity effort).
And with only a few exceptions (â€œMust Be Santa,â€ â€œHere Comes Santa Clausâ€), the instrumental arrangements are uninspired, eschewing as they do the fine tradition of rocking holiday numbers such as Tom Pettyâ€™s â€œChristmas All Over Again,â€ Bruce Springsteenâ€™s â€œSanta Claus Is Coming to Town,â€ or any one of many fun versions of â€œJingle Bell Rock,â€ any of which Dylan could have easily imprinted with his own idiosyncratic stamp.