Christmas in the Heart
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2009, Volume 16, #12
Written by John Metzger
Thu December 3, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Hereís the thing with Bob Dylan: Heís full of surprises. Like a matador waving a bright red towel, he slyly steps out of the way of charging expectations at precisely the last possible moment. If anyone took time to look a little closer, they probably would see a twinkling gleam of mischief flash across the corner of his eye as he makes the leap. It is in this spirit that his latest set Christmas in the Heart was created. The 15-track collection is only vaguely reminiscent of his other recent offerings, and it undeniably is among the oddest outings in his canon. In fact, itís safe to say that the amount of enjoyment one is likely to get out of the endeavor is inversely proportional to how seriously one takes it.
For certain, Christmas in the Heart is not an album that one should spend much time pondering. Most of the tracks on the set are extremely well established holiday classics, and instead of finding a new angle from which to deliver them, Dylan tackles the material in a rather straightforward manner. This is precisely what is so darned perplexing about the endeavor. Like a blast from the past, the contents of Christmas in the Heart are stuck in time, and they lurk so far behind current musical trends that they sound as if they predate Dylanís own remarkable career.
Not surprisingly, the songs from Christmas in the Heart that fare best are those that are most closely aligned with the styles of music that Dylan has been exploring over the course of the past decade. The lazy swing of Christmas Blues wouldnít have sounded out of place amidst the material on Modern Times. Elsewhere, he reunites with Los Lobosí David Hidalgo, who had helped him to shape his other recent outing Together through Life, and they provide the Tex-Mex textures that fuel a manic, cosmic flight through Must Be Santa. Even the warm Hawaiian glow of Christmas Island is a natural extension of Dylanís recent output.
As for the rest of the tracks on Christmas in the Heart, they require a period of acclimation from which some folks might never recover. With a backdrop sculpted by angelic backing vocals, a bowed bass, and a churchly accordion, itís positively surreal to hear Dylanís raspy growl as he delivers Oí Come All Ye Faithful in both English and Latin. He conjures something along the lines of Louis Armstrong during Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but on Silver Bells and The First Noel, he sounds as dementedly bourbon-soaked as Tom Waits. After his sweet chorale of singers paints an appropriately frosty and innocent portrait in Winter Wonderland, Dylan knocks over the snowman with a menacing leer. In effect, the bulk of Christmas in the Heart is akin to the first few seasons of Mad Men, which blew the safe, secure images of pre-November 1963 in America to pieces.
For as many Christmas albums that exist ó and oodles and oodles of them have been made over the years ó there really isnít much competition for Dylan in the grand scheme of things. A few of these efforts are certifiable classics. Most of the endeavors, however, are mediocre at best. The primary intent has always been to touch a few souls and launch a durable single or two. In truth, Christmas in the Heart is no different. It wonít please all of Dylanís fans, and it surely wonít cause him to increase his flock of followers. Nevertheless, itís a sure bet that cuts like Must Be Santa and Christmas Blues will stick around for years to come.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box