Countless blurbs have been published in recent weeks about Bob Dylan and the October 13th release of his 34th studio album, 47th official album--and first Christmas album--Christmas in the Heart. The instant meme was that the record, comprised of traditional songs in a traditional setting, was a bridge too far, that Dylan had lost his mind, or worse, succumbed to the same pitiful commercialism that Christmas had. Plus, Robert Zimmerman, raised Jewish.
The sixties are dead and buried, and Bob has appeared in Cadillac and Victoria Secret ads, but he has always rejected the mantle of antiestablishmentarianism. And those of us in Dylan's audience--which remains sizable, including many who consider his present output amongst the most interesting of his career--may actually find this record in tack with the direction of his recent work. Writing off his Christmas record in premise speaks as much to the withering state of holiday music, as the media's fickle treatment of its own "legend."
Role-playing has always been a part of the Dylan mystique. He's written countless first-person story songs. Half a dozen actors played him in 2007's I'm Not There. He invented an alternate voice for himself, to sing his 1969 country record Nashville Skyline, which is considered a classic today. His recent writing has even more fidelity to character and song form. Although he's lived in Malibu for years, the state of Texas and its musical tradition figure into several songs on his last album, Together Through Life. Christmas in the Heart just suggests Bob believes in the Christmas tradition likewise. It might not be as serious as his recent records, but that doesn't make it fundamentally different. There's no shortage of humor, even in his most serious work.
Christmas songs are some of the best-loved, most enduring songs in popular music. But in spite of the 'Christmas creep' of November airtime, few people are still writing Christmas songs. Today, releasing a Christmas album is often at record company behest, an attempt to cash-in on holiday airtime, or as a gift idea for the child whose parent had been a genuine fan of, say, The Moody Blues, in their heyday. (I did buy my mother their album, December, but it was seemingly their last act as a band.) On the upside, if your Christmas album is deemed a modern classic, it gets played endlessly (ala Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas).
Even if it were exclusively a commercial venture, Bob Dylan's Christmas album would still be cashing in on the part of hungry Americans. During a recession winter when U.S. unemployment is hovering near 10%, US royalties from Christmas in the Heart are going to the charity organization Feeding America. International royalties are going to charities in the UK and the developing world. Prior to the album release it has already guaranteed more than four million meals to people in need. Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" it ain't, but it's not as over-the-top either, so it might actually be better.
Consider that Johnny Cash hosted annual Christmas specials on CBS throughout the seventies. The Beatles made seven Christmas singles for their fan club, with original songs and sketches thanking them for their support. To imagine Bob Dylan is out of touch with the symbolic value of making a Christmas album--as hilarious a sign as it is--is just underestimating him.
Dylan's approach is decidedly Christmas--not "holiday"--oriented; about half are hymns about angels and drummers, and half are about Santa or sleigh bells. No original songs here, and the arrangements are impeccably, absolutely traditional. Horns and strings aplenty. The backup vocals are angelic, like they weren't recorded on the same planet as Bob's lead. True, without his singing, some of this could be anybody's Christmas record. The album is so unironic, fans are already fighting over whether it's meant ironically. At times you will laugh.
Believability. That's what Sam Cooke cited as the reason people endured Bob Dylan's singing voice, which today is more world-worn than ever. If this were an elaborate prank, the way he sings this album, there's no telling. As with Nashville Skyline, the difference between Dylan prank and a serious choice isn't a meaningful difference in credibility. Besides "The Christmas Blues," which is truly contemporaneous with his recent work, "Must Be Santa" is probably his first polka, and with "Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)," I believe we have the first instance of Dylan singing in Latin.
Whether or not it's a genuine album in Dylan's discography--and Bob has admitted to making deliberately unserious albums--it's at least a genuine Christmas album, a fun and funny listen, which was probably fun to make. And it exonerates The Moody Blues, and other credible artists who might like Christmas music. Even if Dylan's just tipping his hat here, Christmas in the Heart is an acknowledgment of an underappreciated musical tradition from one of the most important innovators and interpreters of American popular song.