Isn’t it ironic? Dylan surprises again with holiday CD

Dec 04, 2009

From culturemap:

Isn’t it ironic? Dylan surprises again with holiday CD
By Douglas Newman
December 02, 2009 at 7:00 PM

Earlier this fall, when news broke that Bob Dylan would be cutting an album full of age-old Christmas standards, my friend Jim (a fellow uber-fan) and I engaged in a lively discussion of what might follow. “Why in God’s name,” Jim asked, “would Dylan pull a stunt like this, especially during such a remarkable late-career creative resurgence?” His fear was that it would be a “miscalculation of epic proportions, a folly that would make ‘Self Portrait’ look like his magnum opus.”

My initial response was that Dylan’s a subversive motherfucker with major bottle (read: cahones) and a great sense of humor. Besides, he probably has something valuable to add to the usual staid Christmas classics. Lord knows they could use an injection of some grit. “Jim,” I said, “let’s not underestimate the man. Anybody who can churn out such brilliance as ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Cold Irons Bound’ deserves the benefit of the doubt.” And with that, Jim and I decided to reserve judgment.

A month later I listened to the album, branded aptly enough with an over-saccharine holiday title, “Christmas in the Heart.” And there it was, our generation’s finest songwriter (and a Jewish one at that), surrounded by a bevy of chirping Ray Conniff-esque backing vocalists playing 15 holiday standards totally straight. Not a smirk or wink in sight.

Surreal? That’s an understatement. A colossal miscalculation on par with the “Self Portrait” debacle of 1970? Not even close. While it certainly confirms his Colbert-sized testicles and a penchant for sly humor, more than anything else it solidifies his standing as a master stylist whose interpretive skills nearly match his songwriting acumen.

Once I got over the initial shock of hearing Dylan in such a warm and fuzzy setting, I soon realized that his haggard croak and simple arrangements added new life to these old chestnuts. “Silver Bells” is rendered as a stately waltz with an underpinning of pedal steel and Dylan’s overly-deliberate delivery. “Little Drummer Boy” marches along at a mellow pace, nudged forward by a haunting guitar reverb and steady drum roll, all of which is layered beneath Dylan’s vocal and the harmonies of a female back up singer. You can almost envision this song sitting alongside some of the darker tracks on “Oh Mercy” or “Time Out of Mind.”

One of the highlights of the album is the straightforward, jazzy treatment of the timeless “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” a rendition Jim describes as “splitting the difference between the hopeful Frank Sinatra version and the morbid Judy Garland take.” It’s a Christmas classic spiked with a shot of whiskey that adds a refreshing roughness around the edges. Still safe for the traditionalists, but skewed just enough for the cynics. Indeed, that description pretty much sums up the entire album.

Never one to be predictable (anybody who’s seen the man live can attest to this) or sentimental (ditto), Dylan dared to claim the Christmas canon as his own. That he manages to redefine these beloved yuletide songs all the while staying respectful to what’s come before is a testament to his great taste and remarkable execution. How’s that for a refreshing dose of holiday cheer?