Darren Hirst takes an in-depth look at BOB DYLAN's charity album 'Christmas In The Heart'
Interviewer: You really give a heroic performance of "O Little Town Of Bethlehem". The way you do it reminds me a little of an Irish rebel song. There's something almost defiant in the way you sing, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." I don't want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.
Bob Dylan: Well, I am a true believer.
Making an album of Christmas music would seem to be about as middle-of-the-road and as polite and inoffensive a project as a singer could have. So it would seem. But when Bob Dylan decided to announce the release of his forthcoming Christmas album, it got the online critics' fires a-blazing! Bob Dylan and Christmas carols are not an obvious fit. Dylan certainly doesn't have the crooning style of a Bing Crosby or the pleasant voice of a Jim Reeves. Recording an album of Christmas songs is hardly likely to win plaudits for high art. But the negative reaction began long before the album was released or heard - because it involved a Jewish man who takes his spirituality seriously, once again singing about Jesus Christ - albeit this time about his birth rather than about his death, resurrection or second coming.
The argument went something like this: Dylan's original name is Zimmerman, he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and he simply has no business touching anything that smells of the Christian faith. This wasn't quite as fiery a reaction as greeted 'Slow Train Coming' or 'Saved' but 30 years later to have this reaction from both Jewish and Gentile commentators was simply amazing and rather misplaced. More than a generation may have passed since those early "Jesus" albums of Dylan's but since that time he has recorded hardly a single album that hasn't spoken of his spiritual journey in implicitly Christian terms. This new generation of critics were just shooting at the obvious target and missing completely a man's right to choose his own faith and to express it as he so chooses. They didn't even wait to hear the offending disc!
The gale of negativity shifted direction in late September when the UK Amazon site "leaked" small samples of each of the tracks on the album. The consternation now turned to derision as fans and critics alike announced how musically appalling the album was going to be. They didn't like the concept and they didn't like the arrangements. Dylan is out on tour at the moment opening most nights' shows with "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" telling his crowd that "Jesus is calling - He's coming back to gather his jewels" but the critics round on him for recording a Christmas album. We live in strange times.
All this for an album where all of the artist's royalties are being donated to charities fighting hunger in perpetuity. This remarkable move where Dylan's management has gone to great lengths to link in each country where the album is sold with a reputable charity feeding the homeless has set a new industry standard for charitable effort. Gone the days when making a charity record meant that everyone got their cut first, or where the actual means of distributing the benefit was unclear. Dylan, the artist being derided, has given this album away. A clear case of "Christmas in the heart" if ever there was one. No doubt he can afford to work for nothing - but he didn't have to work for nothing; he chose to.
Even this couldn't warm the cockles of the hearts of the commenting Dylan admirers. One fan on noted Dylan fan site Expecting Rain proposed that people should give the money to beggars they passed in the street rather than buy this mistake of an album - again, all this before review copies were even available.
Now that the furore has passed and the album can be found in your local HMV (albeit with difficulty - there was no place on the new releases racks for this album which neither the label nor the shops seem to want to push), only one question remains. What does it sound like?
The first track, "Here Comes Santa Claus", tells us a lot about where this album is going. The backing vocalists and Dylan's lead vocal are hopelessly at odds. The backing vocalists sound like they've stepped out of another era. Imagine a pre-second world war vocal group who have not aged and who have not been effected by any musical ideas that have washed up on the world's shores since that time. That is what you have here. Dylan, by contrast, sounds every bit of his 68 years and every bit an old blues singer who has been on the road for ever. There is a line on Dylan's previous album about him having the blood of the land in his voice. You can hear here what he means by that sentiment. He sounds as old as the earth.
Also the childishness of the song, a real appreciation of the sentimentality of the holidays and the true meaning of Christmas come face-to-face in another clash of ideas: "Peace on earth will come to all/If we just follow the light/Let's give thanks to the Lord above/.Because Santa Claus comes tonight." On one hand, it might seem ridiculous but on the other it might actually work. I think it might depend on how much you like Christmas songs and how much you can tolerate Dylan's voice.
That sense of three things coming together is all over this album - right down to its design. The Christmas card-style scene on the front of the CD has stepped out of another era just like those backing vocalists. The serious spiritual devotion which is captured in the album is reflected by that inlay card with three magi following a star. The sense of fun and knockabout humour of it all can be seen in the picture of Bettie Page - clad in Santa Suit and stockings and suspenders - which adorns the back page of the booklet.
"Do You Hear What I Hear?" is opportunity for Mr Dylan to capture that sense of childlike innocence that accompanies the best understanding of the Christmas birth. Dylan, his voice as gruff as it has ever been, cherishes and cares for every syllable. Whatever else this album is meant to achieve, he is serious about relating for us all the meanings of Christmas even if the meaning in some of these songs is only that Christmas is meant to be fun.
On the third track, the male backing vocalists of the opening track are traded for a female group who are equally adept at creating that pre-rock 'n' roll era. There's a nice bass line from Tony Garnier but this is just the harmless bit of fun that "Winter Wonderland" was always meant to be. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is an abbreviated but reverent rendering with Dylan's voice stretching to make the chosen key.
"I'll Be Home For Christmas" captures that longing for the ideal family Christmas celebration that is at the heart of this album. It is the closing scene from It's A Wonderful Life or the moment when Scrooge realises that he hasn't missed Christmas Day albeit in a home where the Inkspots and the Beverley Sisters have all turned up for your dream.
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