Christmas Time, It Is A-Changin’, Babe

Oct 20, 2009

From the Martinez (CA) News-Gazette

Christmas Time, It Is A-Changin’, Babe

By Jim Caroompas
Contributing Writer
October 18, 2009

Let me get right to it: these are words I never, ever thought I’d be writing in my brief time on this planet – Bob Dylan has released a Christmas album. Here are some even more surprising words – it is for my money the very best Christmas album I have ever heard. It has liberated me from the confines of the Bing Crosby/Nat King Cole Christmas album prison I have endured my whole life. Those records have defined the season’s songs for me, and kept me from having anything to do with them. I don’t have the artistic wherewithal to recreate the power of that music. But Bob Dylan does. And now he has.

Sure, that’s Bob’s voice coming through on “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” no mistaking it for Dean Martin or Bing Crosby. It’s a long ride down a very rough road. But like someone once told Leonard Cohen, “if I want to hear great singing, I’ll buy a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera.” No, you won’t hear dulcet tones on “Christmas In The Heart.” If lack of vibrato and vocal exactitude is what you’re after, then by all means avoid this album at all costs. But if you want the most authentic Christmas album put out in the past 35 or so years, full of Americana and spirit, then you should buy it.

Bob Dylan? Christmas album? Why not? Nobody believed it when he strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and started playing electric songs, either. Or when he stepped into Nashville in 1968, at the height of the electronic frontier then being explored by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Cream, and released “Nashville Skyline.” Dylan fans gasped with disbelief and derision, and the album became Bob’s first million seller, finding an entirely new audience. Of course, the Christian period (two whole albums’ worth) drove the late 1970s me-crowd (including me) away in droves, and many never returned.

So now there’s a Bob Dylan Christmas album. Before you snarkily suggest that he’s in it for the money, please note that the proceeds of this recording go to various food charities. So even if you don’t like the record, buy it to help feed hungry children.

Right out of the gate you get “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This record comes with standard Christmas instrumentation, and the syrupy background chorus, so it sounds like a typical Christmas record that someone like, say, Ray Coniff would have released. But then Bob comes stepping up to the mike, and you know there’s something going on, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? This song is almost enough to make it sound like the entire project is a joke, Bob deciding to have a laugh at our holiday expense. But listen more closely. This is one of the most mercurial, intellectual and sentimental writers we’ve ever produced on our shores. Don’t dismiss a guy of this enormous talent so capriciously.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is next, and here you start to get the sense that this is a very serious project. This could almost be a song he wrote. I’ve never heard a reading of this song render the story so vividly.

“Winter Wonderland” is not a Christmas song, but it is a seasonal song. And the sauntering, strutting attitude comes through loud and clear. How? Because Bob’s voice may have years of wear and tear, but no one, and I mean no one, can phrase like he can. He knows how to construct phrases like no one short of Billy Holiday.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is a whimsical, melancholy reading. He captures the spirit of the Bing Crosby version – the longing, the sense of danger and impending sorrow that lives just under the surface of the tune, which was popular during WWII, but he infuses it with a Bob Dylan sensibility that lifts it into our time.

“The Christmas Song” is an experience no one can explain in words, you just have to hear it for yourself.

This is my Christmas album, the one I’ll play this season and from now on. I’m grateful to still have a little one around the house to grow up on this record. I hope he takes these memories into this adulthood, the way I have brought Bing and Nat with me.