First posted (in truncated review form) in PressPlus1 magazine:
No introduction is needed in order to put Mr. Robert Zimmerman on a mighty pedestal. This isn't what this little article is about though. Yes, it ties in to his willful desire during his career to throw a curve ball to the public. But I'll try to put it in perspective. Some are enjoying his October 13 release, Christmas in the Heart, for the holiday bliss it wraps itself in, not unlike a warm blanket on a chilly, snowy winter's night. I did say some. Others, expecting better and keeping in mind his legacy, have been savaging it for that very reason. As if Christmas records were supposed to be cool, hip and awe-inspiring? A lot of people are just Dylan doubters who wait for opportunities like these in order to pounce and tear strips off what they see as his inflated stature. It's neither a Christmas classic nor a pile of reindeer crap. Bob often dropped mediocrity on us throughout the period of 1977-90. But unfortunately, more often than not it wasn't because he felt like it, as was the case with 1970's Self Portrait. Self Portrait was a double LP that was so immersed in corniness and a drier, lazier "Nashville Sound" sort of country, that it struck even the most steadfast, loyal Dylanophile to recoil in confusion. Thusly, it became the worst reviewed album of his career. Apparently, Nashville Skyline wasn't a big enough shock for Dylan to ward off fans. His real intent was to do something completely different, something a lot more simple and offhand than he had ever done. Those who thought Dylan didn't have a schmaltzy bone in his body were in for a rude awakening, even if they could handle and absorb the pure country crooning of Nashville Skyline. The throngs of revolutionaries and hippie liberals now littering the rock audience hoped they could summon Dylan to begin organizing the troops through his words again. But Dylan wasn't about "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Masters of War" in 1969 and he bravely, some would say provokingly, made an album- not just any, but a four-sided one like his quintessential Blonde on Blonde- so remarkably square and the antithesis of groundbreaking and breathtaking, that many wrote him off and disparaged him.
Somehow, at only 29 years of age, Bob Dylan was considered a has-been who didn't even know what is own fans wanted to hear anymore. But unlike other rock chameleons who blatantly change their mannerisms, fashions and even hair colours, Dylan morphed into different little niches with little regard for what others thought of him. He's been just as much a chameleon as David Bowie or Madonna only he has jumped around to avoid expectations musically rather than in image as well (though you could argue his 80s look of leather and jewelry- Dylan pimped to the nines!- was a pose of its own). There are very few mavericks who can claim the career of a Bob Dylan while also claiming to be so ignorant to trends and opinions. You just couldn't start a career today with that mindset and hope to be anything more than a cult hero. The fact artists no longer touch a nerve in people's minds so much as their wallets is a statement on where the world is headed in terms of its appreciation for music as compared to its insatiable appetite for entertainment (not one and the same thing). A legend like Dylan could never have had the same impact 10-15 years after he began. Even after his "protest" days he was pushing the envelope in a way that was ballsier than it was smart. Of course, the reaction to the dud known as Self Portrait was so severe that Dylan heard about the circus from his lable Columbia and, although he has insisted it was in his plans anyway, quickly responded four months later with a much superior album, New Morning. New Morning is quite solid but not great, although it was hailed as such by the rock press, still puzzled and somewhat befuddled over the dismal Self Portrait.
At the time of release, Self Portrait is still the most negatively criticized Dylan studio album, but time and context have made Self Portrait seem a lot less brutal than it actually is. One can enjoy it almost as much as the smiling cowpoke of its predecessor, if it was edited down to a single LP and shortened to say 8 or 9 tracks. Dylan recovered from the backlash but his lack of another masterpiece- before Blood on the Tracks that is- stagnated his career, especially when he went through a big period of writers block from 1971-73. He would have been well served by doing the same and withholding or delaying albums in the 80s and sparing us the lackluster thud that a majority of them landed with. For example, think of how good Slow Train Comingcould have been if he'd waited two years to release it and made it a double disc? (we'd have "Every Grain of Sand," "Heart of Mine," "Lord Protect My Child," "Angelina," "Caribbean Wind," "Groom Still Waiting at the Altar," "What Can I Do for You?" and "In the Summertime" added- in short, his second best release of the entire decade). Or think of how good an album like Infidels could have been if he'd waited another 2-3 years to release it and then put some backloaded previously unreleased material on it too? ("Foot of Pride," "Blind Willie McTell," "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" and "Brownsville Girl" all together!?). After his mid-70s renaissance of sorts came the whirlwind of his marriage crumbling as well as the filming of a movie (Renaldo and Clara) amidst the Rolling Thunder Revue- his 1975-76 touring outfit that kept growing with well known sidemen and stars Dylan had befriended over the years until it was a frigging jubilee or the largest jug band known to man if you will. This set up a period of blinding inconsistency, overshadowed at first by a controversial "Born Again" Christian period where he appeared to become loathsome of the world's evils and cast a doubting eye on everything not in the service of the Lord.
Atheists and agnostics alike were offended and put off by this "Old Testament" hellfire and brimstone Bob Dylan. On the positive side, it cleansed the palette of his disappointing Street Legal from 1978, which was followed by the Vegasy tour he underwent with a giant band- documented by the worthless live double Live at Budokan in 1979. Despite the re-birth, Dylan saw a spike in sales but he immediately squandered momentum with the lousy Saved and the not-quite-as-lousy Shot of Love in 1980 and '81 respectively. Infidels improved the situation somewhat in 1983, with Dylan retreating from the dogmatic stance quite a bit. Not perfect, ut many hoped it was a start of a turnaround musically and lyrically even though Dylan's Christian era concerts were undeniably spiritual, uncompromising (he eschewed his secular material for a spell) and even touching for a non-devout person to see and hear. Dylan gorged himself on scripture and built up the acumen of a traveling preacher, courageously facing gatherings with his faith on his sleeve like a badge of honour, all the while coping with a cascade of scorn and doubt being levied from every angle imaginable. When he abandoned all that God talk, he somehow became a little less fearless and symmetrical a performer and often his tours would become- even to this day they're not totally immune- inconsistent treks around North America with a seeming loss of poignancy and an almost impotence of fulfilling even audiences bare minimum expectations. Songwriting took a dip through a barren desert of stodgy dullness too as throughout this 1977-90 period, he seemed unable to write outside of a boring structure of bluesy phrasing. It was monotonous filler, where each song lacked a discernible melody and seemed like rehearsal for something bigger and better that never came. Yes indeed people, the bracing thrill of those mid-60s electric sidemen was extremely longed for by fans. Where Dylan had once embarked into electric blues with killer chaps who made their natural state of musicianship sound like what would take normal players a fistful of reds and cough syrup to reach. In that peak period, one could ascertain that Dylan was so brash, so strong-headed that he could pluck almost any hot shit musician he pleased.
By 1985, he could often get the pros but never the hungry and thirsty lions capable of pushing him. He used a punkish outfit called the Delinquents in 1984 for his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and honestly should've gone out on the road with them, instead of what he did do- rely on a hired band with session puppets like Mick Taylor (talented guitarist but nothing that was going to break new territory for Bobby). The sound was too familiar, too ordinary and entrenched in 70s rock values instead of something deliciously modern and the kind of medicine Dylan should've swallowed. Dylan's rocky relationship with performing in the 80s was overcome by going out on the road in 1986 with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, a band made up of musicians not from his generation. Their oldest member, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, was still 9 years Dylan's junior. With the Delinquents, Dylan put on an underprepared, careening and mistake prone apperance, but not in an embarrassing or dreadful way at all- really, the major mistake is Dylan's, when he tries to solo on harmonica on "Jokerman" but picks up the wrong blues harp and has to rummage for the right one. However, the energy, seethe and no bullshit approach was sorely lacking from the Zimm's persona back then. Such decisions that were guaranteed to keep him in a safety zone ultimately came to foreshadow the rudderless career to come. His two albums after the uneven but decent Empire Burlesque and the wonderful Infidels dropped him right back into mediocrity he had toyed with during his re-birth phase. Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove aren't totally worthless but are really Dylan at his lowest, patched together from 1983-86 sessions and lacking the focus they would have had with just one series of sessions dedicated to them. Daniel Lanois pumped hope back into Dylan's fans with the startling Oh Mercy in 1989 but Dylan went right back and let star producer Don Was helm the reprehensible Under the Red Sky. After that, his career seemed dried up for good, only generating two acoustic folk cover records that recalled how he had once been so impacting on music and also reflecting how ugly his singing voice had become. Then a reunion with Lanois jolted his career to life for the Grammy-awardedTime Out of Mind in 1997 and Dylan triumphed with his new crackerjack bands on self-produced efforts 2001's Love & Theft- the true masterpiece of the post-comeback albums- 2006's Modern Times and this year's Together Through Life.
That brings us to here and now. Call it his 34th studio album if you like, but Christmas in the Heart is another one of those sudden, unforetold detours by the master. If you're not familiar with him, you might think it a wretched disc from a washed up old coot. You'd be wrong on both counts, though less so on the first. If you know anything about him, you should know it's Dylan taking the piss and giving a wink while straight-faced delivering holiday jingles like some understudy of Burl Ives or Bing Crosby if either got kicked by a mule in the larynx. Despite delivering these songs relatively loyal to the originals, he still sings in that road-worn, gravelly bellow that's become partly inspiring and partly giggle-inducing since it first became truly ingrained on Love & Theft. Being a deep fan of the man and a studied scholar on his career, the first time I heard one of these tracks I literally laughed out loud (or LOL'd, as internet linguists put it). But then I realized I should simply take it at face value, understand it was Dylan exhibiting the spirit of Jolly 'ol St. Nick himself. Those who trash this album are somewhat in the wrong because at this point in his career Dylan doesn't have to crank out genius tunes every time, at least in my estimation. Look, Christmas in the Heart is one thing, but it's not inexcusable like Under the Red Sky, the live Dylan & the Dead (one of the only pieces of audial proof that the Grateful Dead did not always cook in concert), Down in the Groove, Knocked Out Loaded, Saved, Live at Budokan or even the tongue-in-cheek Self Portrait. Dylan's responsibility is no longer to deliver gold time and time again and if this was a bad Christmas album, that'd be one thing. But I'll take this one over Mariah Carey shrieking out "Silver Bells" or Beyonce turning "Winter Wonderland" into a shameless, selfish grandstanding of vocal melisma, hypothetically speaking. The concept of Dylan doing Christmas songs seems unsuited to his style, but if he wants to, that's fine and dandy like sour candy (which sounds like one of those old time corny homilies Dylan gives on recent albums).
Christmas in the Heart, despite its embarrassing moments, still convinces me he's settling into old age amazingly well. Who could've pictured this 25 years ago when he looked to be desperately hanging on, wearing earrings, leather and makeup in concert? Or when he was blathering in concert without coherence whatsoever, while seemingly disinterested in his older numbers... wait, he still does that. Look, Dylan's not 21 anymore folks. He's a grandpappy and as long as he's still with us for the next handful of years, I'd wager to bet he'll be a great grandpappy too. So he's thinking of the little ones when he records an LP like this and also his motives are pure in that he's donating the royalties to the UN's World Food Program, Feeding America and Crisis UK, all organizations dedicated to fighting child hunger worldwide. Dylan the humanitarian and philanthropist? Well, as Pete Seeger wrote, there's "a time to every purpose under heaven." Under the Red Sky hinted toward Dylan's affection for the little ones, containing a few of Dylan's most simplistic songs yet, drawing from tall tales, fables and nursery rhymes and thanked "pubbly wubbly" in the liner notes, leading to strong suggestions that Dylan had geared the album to his then-secret five year old daughter Desiree. OnChristmas in the Heart, Dylan recreates the Christmas euphoria of his childhood, recalling the music aimed at his folks- the mass majority of the US in those heady post-war days. He recreates the type of fireside vocal pop for Middle America's idyllic, white, buttoned-down families. Of course, Dylan's family was Jewish but out in cold, small town Hibbing, Minnesota definitely felt a part of the stereotypical sunny, promising, bustling world of suburban America. Okey-dokey, this was the same Middle America he couldn't wait to escape from, but he used it to his advantage when he arrived in New York, crafting tall tales about his life to that point that may have been inspired by Kerouac but took a little bit of Mid Western charm with them too. Therefore, we have Dylan sprinkling in hearty stockings full of sleigh bells, glockenspiels, rosy apple-cheeked Andrews Sisters choruses and even polka flourishes (thanks to Los Lobos' David Hidalgo). Sometimes this is plain weird and jarring recorded material from Bob.
Rarely does Dylan try to turn a Christmas carol or popular song into one of his own on this LP, so even though there's the trough of Americana instrumentation like mandolin, pedal steel guitar and upright bass, it's not as if we're getting some ragtime, rockabilly, jump blues or bluegrass like recent Dylan works. It's not all orchestration and choirs either, but you get the idea. Some may point out that it's odd to get a Christmas album from someone whose birth name was Robert Zimmerman, but this guy has jumped back and forth between public displays of ascribing to either Christianity or Judaism so he can record about anything and claim authenticity. What of the actual songs? Well, the laughter begins to tumble only slightly less so than later on during the first track "Here Comes Santa Claus." It's not bad by Christmasy standards, opting for the jolly glockenspiel and breezy vocal chorus that makes Bob sound like he just landed in the middle of a Lawrence Welk program. Some bluesy guitar and slide work comes on "Do You What I Hear?" one of the more gracious and respectable recordings here. Despite those components, there's enough piano, snare drum march and faithfulness to the original melody to make anyone forget any illusions about Dylan turning it into a Southern barnstorming sizzler. The arrival of sweet little female choruses on "Winter Wonderland" is a jolt only to those who never heard the corny choirs from Self Portrait. It's a bit unsuited to the usual Dylan fare, but he drips some country/jazz ambience to make it another charming listen. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" opts for the churchy stridence of most renditions but Dylan sounds strained and stunted in his singing, though it's cool to hear him hit notes he's stayed away from for the last 20 years and for one brief note he even sounds like the "cow stuck on a fence" groan of old. "Hark" does not outright stink up the joint thankfully. A chance to have a slow, sensuous version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" isn't totally capitalized upon, opting to go the Elvis route with some white-bred vocal harmonies that owe something to the Ink Spots.
"Little Drummer Boy" gets a fine, straight reading from Bob and it's a relief to hear it in the hands of the master, not being gussied up with a quotient of lameness. "Christmas Blues" is routine, even if it's the first time Bob is laying down music not unlike his recent albums. After a while, that gravelly croak of a voice tends to irritate too. "O Come All Ye Faithful" is just insane, with Dylan reciting parts in Latin and singing like he has a head cold. Almost novelty-like, moreso than other cuts. Still, I think I detected a faint harmonica somewhere back there, a piece of equipment he has been neglecting further and further over the last 15 years. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" doesn't mesh well with Bob's voice, coming off more like the cover you'd hear from an experienced truck stop roadhouse band on December 24 while everyone's scrambling back home for the big day. In short, a bit cheap and standard instead of moving and thoughtful. You might argue that it's impossible to come across as such because these songs have all been done to death, but if they're great tunes, you should be able to shape them into quality moments and give them proper thought. Bob doesn't always have that going for him on Christmas in the Heart. The one time he really deviates from expectation is with the zydeco, nutty take on "Must Be Santa." Dylan rapidly garbling out the lyrics, answered back by his vocal chorus like the Jordanaire wannabes they are, is about the most frenetically he's done anything since the blues rock 2/4 of his mid-60s plugged in period. It's almost as fast a tempo as a damn bebop piece, but the attempt at going outside the box is plain creepy and wildly entertaining in a wrong way. "Silver Bells" has the regalia of a true carol with bells and chimes plus violins layered onto that, one of the handful of occasions on this album where Dylan gets what it takes to make a Christmas staple worth taking in. "The First Noel" is a scary ringer forSelf Portrait's kookier country pop but isn't a total loss nonetheless. "Christmas Island" works, because it's supposed to be a funky Hawaiian finger-snapper. It transports you right back to days when Bing Crosby held captive the ear of every American on their radio set. Dylan's doing this album more as a history lesson or documentation of what Christmas pop meant to people in his childhood and what it sounded like.
Hey, for fidelity exactness, Tom Waits could be a godsend to the Christmas album market. He loves producing recordings that sound beat up, crackly and like they're second generation masters with pre-big studio technology. 've always thought he could do both the most unique and the most gut-bustingly hilarious Christmas album ever (a karaoke piano bar Waits doing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas would kill, I must say). Anyway, back to Dylan' methods for spreading yuletide cheer. "The Christmas Song" rolls along like lounge jazz but isn't nearly as slickly shallow. It's a bit of a gratifying cut actually. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is Dylan ratcheting up the pomp. It doesn't quite hit the mark but isn't at the bottom of the heap either. Really, I don't find this offensively bland product, even as a hardline Dylan fan and someone who's heard these Christmas tunes ad nauseum all my life- especially for the few weeks I worked in a retail store around the Christmas season and heard 10 different versions of "Silent Night," most so appalling as to make your ears want to bleed and your face recoil or shrivel up in abject horror. I'm no blind optimist or defender of poor musical effort, but those who completely pan or disown this album just after listening to a few samples need to settle down. If one can't even find a remote shred of Christmas spirit from this album, they're juyst cynical, stuck-up blowhards anyway. You don't have to like it, but understand why Bob did this album and why it's not meant to be taken too seriously. Bob can yuck it up even when honing his interpretive craft on a batch of extremely well-known songs and for that I tip my cap to him. Christmas in the Heart will very likely not go down in lore as a bonafide classic for the holidays but it's got a few things I'd put on my Christmas mix tape and it will outclass 99% of what else is puked out by phony, record label invested stars in the coming weeks. To reinforce the idea that even Bob himself knows he's immersing his persona into feel good nostalgia, the cover artwork is a painting of man and woman riding horse bound carriage through the snow in a scene that you might otherwise think was lifted out of some kind of Norman Rockwell artwork. In other words, something classy from the lore of Americana. And when you get right down to it, Dylan's career has been all about Americana and adapting it to the rest of the world's ways.
Rating: B (*** out of five)