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Christmas in the Heart is, let's be honest, a novelty record, but it is a novelty record of great quality. It sounds very strange at first to hear Dylan singing traditional ballads, but by the end of the album there's nothing strange about it and, for Dylan fans, it will undoubtedly become a firm favourite at Chrismastime. For people who aren't Dylan fans and are looking for something nice to play for the family at Christmas - grandparents, etc - this is probably not the best choice, as Dylan's voice is not so easy on the ear as, say, Bing Crosby. Most of the songs will be familiar to everybody, and Dylan mostly plays them straight, but they are all the more affecting for this - "Must Be Santa Claus" in particular is a delight, as is "Do You Hear What I Hear," "The Christmas Bells," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Not a classic, that's for sure, but it's not meant to be - it's just the perfect album for Dylan fans to play at Christmas.
What was he thinking?
This is Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan! - doing a Christmas album. When I first heard of this, I assumed it was an awful practical joke. I'm still not quite sure it isn't. But the croaky old folkster has indeed released an album of Christmas standards, a move so unexpected you have to wonder what planet he's currently living on. We've all got drunk and thought of recording a Christmas album at some point, but none of us actually think it's a good idea when we sober up!
(How many good Christmas albums actually are there? There are good, or at least not-too-bad, Christmas songs, but full albums? OK, Phil Spector's is good, but he, surely, is the last person in whose footsteps you'd want to follow. How did Dylan think this was going to work?)
I'll admit to not having anything but the vaguest idea of what Dylan has been up to since the late 70s. His 60s output is revered, and I've no problem with that - his best songs have a hardness to them, and an intelligence, that puts The Beatles to shame. Desolation Row might well be the best song ever, and Blood On The Tracks the best album. The slightly amateurish aspects - the slightly flat singing voice, the rather perfunctory guitar-playing, the terrible harmonica - all just somehow underline what good music the guy actually wrote. But as with almost all iconic 60s musicians, Dylan suffered a drop in quality so precipitous that it makes you wonder if he wasn't killed and replaced with a lookalike sometime around 1976.
And now, in 2009, there's Christmas In The Heart. I'm willing to give anyone a fair crack of the whip, so I tried to approach this with an open mind. Less than a minute into the first song, 'Here Comes Santa Claus', I was clutching at my temples and moaning. He uses a traditional sleighbells-and-backing singers arrangement, with a pleasant Hawaiian sounding guitar, which only goes to highlight just how shocking his voice sounds. His voice is ugly and tuneless; the man just can't sing anymore.
His voice was always odd, but although it was rasping and croaky there was a hard edge that made up for any technical shortcomings. Here he sounds a bit like Tom Waits with the barroom ebullience leeched out. Or Krusty the Clown on a bad day. Dylan can't reach the high notes, and can't even stay in time with the music in some of the faster passages. It's like your voice sounds the day after a particularly gruelling karaoke session. This isn't going to make anyone feel jolly. Play this to a room full of children and they'll have nightmares for weeks.
And so it goes on. It sounds like he's in physical pain during 'Do You Hear What I Hear?' By 'Winter Wonderland' it occurred to me that he sounded like a Muppet, although I'm not sure I can remember which one. I started to feel sorry for the backing singers. 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' almost works, except when he has to hold a note for more than half a second.
I thought maybe he'd be on slightly firmer ground with the carols. The first verse of 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' actually sounded quite good. If he'd sung it softly - at the comfortable bottom of his vocal range - it might have been quite affecting. Unfortunately at the first chorus he starts bellowing it out like a torch song, and the only sane response is laughter. 'The Little Drummer Boy' is actually not terrible. The backing singers are doing some of their best work, and at no point does Dylan actually need to try to hit a high note, so he gets away with it.
'O Come All Ye Faithful' is a return to the growly Muppet-voice. That bit after the 'Come let us adore him' lines, the 'Chri-ist our lord' bit, where you have to change note in the middle of the word 'christ' - he opts to pronounce that 'cry-yeast', which is just silly. There were times during this when I wondered if maybe he'd had a stroke or something.
'Christmas Blues', a song I've never heard before, isn't terrible, but it's not very Christmassy or, really, very memorable. His version of 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', one of the loveliest Christmas songs of all, is... ahh, look, I'm trying to find something nice to say about this, but I'm struggling. He puts a bit of feeling into it, anyway, and when he shuts up and lets the backing singers handle it, it sort of does the job. 'Must Be Santa' is a jolly question-and-answer song about the Big Guy with a sort of Eastern European feel to it. Dylan performs it with gusto, and it's probably the best song on here, although it really does bring out the Muppet-voice in full.
And so it goes on. 'Silver Bells' and 'The First Noel' had me reaching for the 'skip' button. 'Christmas Island' is a bit of peculiar whimsy that doesn't sound *too* bad. In 'Christmas Song' (that's the 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire' one) he seems to have given up trying to stay in time to the music entirely. And his version of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' has a different tune to the one I'm familiar with, which gives the unfortunate impression that he's just making it up as he goes along, like a drunk tramp trying to amuse passers-by in the hope they'll give him some change.
It's been given a fairly gentle ride by the critics, which suggests that the Dylan brand must still have some potency. Reviewers have claimed to detect some kind of irony in the thing (perhaps because of the rather silly pictures on the packaging), and seem to be trying rather desperately to claim it as an example of Dylan's wit. This is clearly special pleading of the first order. I suspect that no one involved in this, Dylan included, was taking it too seriously, but to praise its rather shambolic qualities as somehow the point of the album is self-indulgent nonsense.
It wouldn't do to be too harsh on this, as the proceeds from its sale are going to charidee. So you can buy a copy with a clear conscience. Although whether you'll actually want to listen to it is another matter. But whatever the motives behind making it, joke or no joke, this is a baffling album that's rather unpleasant to listen to.
It's difficult to imagine listening to this again. I got it out of curiosity, but can't say I was really surprised by it, and the essential silliness won't be enough to keep me coming back for more. It costs about £9 on amazon. I wouldn't suggest anyone buy this, however worthy the charities, but a furtive listen on iTunes might be in order, if only to persuade you that I'm right.
Despite some negative & almost sardonic reviews for this album, I think it's fabulous, he plays these timeless christmas songs completely straight, retaining the majesty of the original songwriting.
There are 15 tracks included, beginning with a somewhat jaunty reading of 'Here Comes Santa Claus' & concluding with 'O Little Town Of Bethlehem', most listeners will know the bulk of what is here, albeit in different form. I find it refreshing to here a serious & dignified interpretation of a Christmas album concept. Typically these albums are pretty naff, but Dylan takes this as seriously as any of his other records.
It's surreal in places & definitely a grower, but it captures the spirit of Christmas perfectly, sincerely & affectionately & manages to stay just the other side of serious & win you over after a couple of listens.
Definitely an unexpected release for most, yet with all the proceeds going directly to charity, even if you are skeptical at first, you ought to give this a chance, I think it will surprise you.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Here Comes Santa Claus
2 Do You Hear What I Hear
3 Winter Wonderland
4 Hark The Herald Angels Sing
5 I'll Be Home For Christmas
6 Little Drummer Boy
7 Christmas Blues, The
8 O Come All Ye Faithful
9 Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
10 Must Be Santa
11 Silver Bells
12 First Noel, The
13 Christmas Island
14 Christmas Song, The
15 O Little Town Of Bethlehem