Dylan’s Christmas CD ‘charms and dazzles’

Nov 01, 2009

From Daily Gleaner

by Wilfred Langmaid

There will surely be people who hear the news that Bob Dylan’s 47th and latest album is a Christmas offering and be filled with amusement and disbelief.

These people will then listen to Christmas In the Heart – a blend of 15 secular and sacred pieces done up in a pre-rock-era style and featuring Dylan’s gnarly bleat of a voice front and centre in the mix – and be even more turned off.

These people just don’t get it.

At its core, Christmas In the Heart is simply the latest of Bob Dylan’s albums of the last dozen years which strip off all the veneer of being current and timely, harkening back instead to the very roots of music of the pre-war era. That his lived-in voice really is a perfect fit for the loose, limber, spare, and ably executed spin on roots music, which is Dylan of the last many years, is a bonus.

In the process, Christmas In the Heart is a perfect time capsule for the Christmas album/holiday season song phenomenon of the last 60 years – at least for my time capsule.

The central premise is that Dylan is the single-most significant musical figure of his lifetime. He revolutionized and popularized two musical idioms – first folk and then rock – in the first decade of his career.

If anything, this last decade of a 50-year career has been his most consistent decade since those halcyon days.

By its very nature, lacking the self-penned lyrics which are the diamonds among Dylan’s jewelry, this album must be seen for what it is. It is certainly not the masterwork of his trilogy of comeback albums – 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, 2001’s Love And Theft, and 2006’s Modern Times – or even the great collaboration with lyricist Robert Hunter, Together Through Life, from earlier this year.

At its very core, this album displays Dylan’s sense of whimsy. However, it is anything but a contrived kick at the commercial can for a late-in-his-career nostalgia act. In fact, royalties from the sales of Christmas In The Heart will be donated to Feeding America in perpetuity.

So, yes, Christmas In The Heart is in substance and structure one of many yuletide albums by a veteran artist that will be coming out in these next few weeks. However, it is most accurately and tellingly understood as a cover album in the same seminal vein of fusing the roots of pop, rock, folk, blues, and related idioms of North American popular music of Dylan since Time Out Of Mind.

Granted, some of the moments work better than others; the actual carols are the most wobbly entries.

However, the best moments – rollicking treatments of songs like Here Comes Santa Claus and Must Be Santa, spare crooners like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and the cover most akin to his originals of the last dozen years The Christmas Blues – are wonderful.

All in all, this is a fun experiment that always charms and often dazzles.

Fredericton-based freelance writer Wilfred Langmaid has reviewed albums in The Daily Gleaner since 1981, and is a past judge for both the Junos and the East Coast Music Awards. His column appears each Saturday.