I love this album. It’s a perfect follow-up, not to Dylan’s trilogy of albums vacuum-cleaning the American song tradition for inspiration, but to his Theme Time Radio Hour. (And for the record, my negative evaluation of his latest studio albums does not stem from indignation over ‘theft’, should anyone have gotten that impression, but from a number of lacklustre performances of material of declining quality.)
It’s hilarious. Finally, the ‘wolfman’ voice has found a home where it belongs: as a counterweight to the saccharine, a way to scare the living soul out of the unsuspecting innocent, and perhaps – just perhaps – blow some meaning into these songs again.
Because surely it’s hilarious. But that’s not the main reason why I’ve played this album more than any Dylan album since Time out of Mind. The reason is simple: the way he sings ‘ad Bethlehem’ in Adeste fideles sends shivers down my spine; his demonstration of Santa’s laughter in Must be Santa is the funniest thing since ‘Talkin’ WWIII Blues’; the sombre tone of Do you hear what I hear? is stunning and a perfect counterpart to the angelic serenity of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, perspectivizing both qualities and leaving us, not somewhere undefined in the middle, but somewhere where there is room for both sombre and serene, hilarious and breathtakingly beautiful.
Of course, it’s a brilliant idea of Dylan to make a Christmas album, because it’s the last thing anyone would have expected (and, for that reason alone, perhaps not at all surprising). But Christmas in the Heart is much more than a funny idea, a joke, or, for that matter, just a nice way to do charity. It’s obvious that he loves this stuff. And somehow, amid the croaking and the frolicking, he manages to communicate that love, at least to this listener.
And when love is communicated, what more can one ask?
Have yourselves a merry Christmas!
[Update:] But wait, there is more. Two things more: “Dylan and tradition” and “Dylan and religion”.
Dylan and tradition
Quite a lot has been made out of the fact that this is a 1950s version of the American christmas song tradition. Someone pointed out that seven of the songs are from Frank Sinatra’s 1957 A Jolly Christmas album; others that Dylan secretly wants to be Dean Martin, another source for many songs.
I won’t repeat all that has been said about that. Here, just a brief remark about harmony. If there is one thing that runs through Dylan’s entire production, all period included, it is his consistent avoidance of the plain dominant, especially the dominant seventh: the strong harmonic tension generator, which is resolved to the key note, e.g. G7 ? C. Even when he plays covers, or when he relates to fixed genres, such as the blues, he usually finds ways to modify the dominant relation.
Not so here. In no other Dylan album will one find as many chains of dominant seventh as here. Just a sample:
|Christmas blues has||F#7 B7 E7 A7 Dmaj7|
|I’ll be home for christmas has||Bm7-5 E7 Am7 D7 G|
|Here comes Santa Claus||A7 Dm7 G7 C|
|Have yourself a merry Iittle Christmas,||B7 E7 A7 D7 Gmaj7|
This is not in itself surprising — that’s how the songs were written, and the room for taking liberties is smaller in this genre than in folk and blues. What is interesting about it, is the degree to which (and the ease with which) Dylan has subordinated himself to the style, without feeling the need to make a statement about it, the way he did on Self Portrait, the only album which is comparable in this respect (but not in many other).
The same can be said about the way he treats melody: he actually sings the tunes, straight up, with none of the trademark “you couldn’t even recognize the melody” treatment. And he does it wonderfully. He takes his mastery of vocal delivery into this — for him, as a public persona — foreign territory, and does it convincingly.
Dylan and religion
This one is inevitable when Dylan chooses to make a Christmas album. What does he mean with it? Is it a clear sign that he’s still a Christian, or is it a just as clear sign of the opposite; that it’s all “just” heritage?
I have no idea, and I don’t care (there is only one song that has made me wonder what he thinks in this area, but it’s not on Christmas in the Heart). What I do know is that the lyrics to “Here Comes Santa Claus” in the version that Dylan sings is a most fascinating mix of symbols. From the “jingle bells” intro with the smooth, soft jazz choir, and through the first two verses, it’s classic American pop culture Christmas all the way, with reindeer, stockings and toys.
But then, in the third verse:
[He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor]
for he loves you just the same
Oh, that was Santa, was it? For a moment there, I thought I was in the wrong song — I thought that was Christ or something.
[Santa knows that we’re God’s children]
and that makes everything right
The real Santa: St Nicholas
OK, so it was something in that direction after all. From here to the end of the song, it is quite clear that this has something to do with God, but it is delightfully unclear if it’s Santa or someone else who comes as God’s gift to Man on Christmas day.
This is emphasised by the arrangement: the alternation between the slow, solemn “Let’s give thanks to the Lord above” and the jinglebellsy “Cause Santa Claus comes tonight” is … Well, I have no idea what to call it. Hilarious? not quite. Blasphemous? Not at all. Devout? Get out of here!
At the same time, it’s all of those, and more. The best way I can describe this album is as a balancing act. A balancing act that you can only perform if you’re enjoying yourself and what you’re doing, perfectly unaffected by the 70,000 fathoms of thin air between you and total disaster. Dylan seems to have been staring into that abyss for quite some time, ever since he first tried to shake off the yoke of being some Generation’s Voice. Christmas in the Heart is a sign that he is finally free.