With Thanksgiving behind us and Advent under way, the wife and I did in fact pick up Christmas in the Heart. I've given it a few listens through at this point, though this early in December I try not to over-dose on Christmas tunes, in case my plans go awry, and I have to do some of my shopping in actual brick-and-mortar establishments, where plasticine reproductions of beloved melodies waft through the air like imitation snowflakes. Whatever you do, don't let one land on your tongue. Where was I? Oh, right. Christmas in the Heart. The bottom line, which I'll put conveniently near the top of the page, is that it's pretty good. Once you accept that Bob Dylan has made a Christmas album, straight-faced, and with roughly the same track listing as anyone else's Christmas album, it's not nearly as weird as you initially feel it should be. It's a welcome addition to the four or five albums that I'll put in the CD player as I decorate the tree, and try to make cookies. As a Dylan fan, I can easily say that this isn't even close to being one of Bob's best albums. It is, however, one of the best Christmas albums on the market (Christmas albums being worse, in general, than non-Christmas albums). Of course, as is the case with most good Christmas albums, not every track is a winner; the songs that I already liked before hearing Dylan sing them are still the best ones on the album, and there are still some duds. I'll go through the tracks one-by-one, just in case anything I've already said has piqued your interest.
1. Here Comes Santa Claus. There's not much that Dylan can do with this one, because in the end it's just not a very good song. The tune's a bit on the obnoxious side, and then there's the lyrics: "Here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane..." Seriously? Santa Claus Lane? Even as a child, I thought that was a terrible lyric. Still, Dylan, his band, and his delightfully corny backup chorus make the song listenable. The highlight of the track is the inflection of his voice on the line "hang your stockings and say your prayers 'cause Santa Claus comes tonight." The way Dylan tells kids to say their prayers, you'd think Santa was actually coming to kill them. Terrific. As a side note, the song mentions that Santa "doesn't care if you're rich or poor, he loves you just the same," which I think is a remarkable assertion to make to a child whom you're attempting to convince of Jolly Ol' Saint Nick's existence. Any kid who's experienced more than one Christmas is bound to notice that Santa generally brings rich children better toys. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm fine with this. The guy can do what he wants with his magical toy distribution empire, it's only false advertising that I object to. Anyways, moving along...
2. Do You Hear What I Hear? This one's pretty good. It's never been my favorite song, but it's got a nice sort of vibe to it, thanks to Bob's rhythm section. A winner.
3. Winter Wonderland. To me, this is the real triumph of the album, because I don't really like this song, or at least I didn't before this version of it came along. This version, however, is great. I challenge anyone to listen to this song without imagining that Bob's background singers are dressed like Rockettes. It is impossible.
4. Hark The Herald Angels Sing. As with most of the songs here, Bob does this one pretty much straight up. It works.
5. I'll Be Home For Christmas. A sentimental old gem. It's amazing how well Dylan's voice works for this song, backed by piano and pedal steel guitar. I've always thought that the line "Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree" sounds just a bit off, since most of us have presents under the tree, but I guess at this point it's too late to change.
6. Little Drummer Boy. I kind of like this song. It's not the best Christmas carol out there, but it's found its way into the cannon, and as it is I suppose I'd miss it if it weren't included here.
7. The Christmas Blues. I'd never heard this one before. It sort of reminds me of Oscar the Grouch's song "I Hate Christmas" off of the Sesame Street Christmas LP my family had growing up. Looking back, I'm guessing that it was a gift to one of my older siblings. It's such a fixture in my Christmas memories that I should probably send my parents a card this year which says "Dearest Mama and Papa, thank you for not killing me for all of the times I played the Sesame Street Christmas LP. I had no idea at the time what I was putting you through." So, I guess that "The Christmas Blues" is kind of a downer, but it sounds cool, and is actually kind of refreshing in the middle of an album so rife with festive cheer. To be honest, perhaps some part of me also hates Christmas. "And if you want the truth, I ain't so crazy about Thanksgiving or Labor Day, either!"
8. O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles). What's this? Bob Dylan singing in Latin? Sure, it sounds silly, but I don't think it actually sounds any sillier than when most people try to sing in Latin. Besides, it just sounds so... cheery. A winner.
9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. I've always sort of liked the melancholy optimism in this tune. It's somewhat nice to hear a Christmas song with the line "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow," as if the month of December isn't all sticky-sweet generic cheer and goodwill towards men. Dylan diverges from the tune of this song somewhat here, which is surprising to me only in how little he does it.
10. Must Be Santa is a polka about Santa Claus. I'm not really sure that I need to tell you more. It's so ludicrous that I can't really fault Dylan for including it here, really, even if it is easily the worst track on the album. (One of the rapidly-sung lyrics is just a list of reindeer and recent U.S. Presidents, for apparently no reason.)
11. Silver Bells. Another oft-unbearable classic that Dylan somehow makes enjoyable here. With its usual corn syrup removed, it's now a slow country waltz with jangly guitars, and Dylan's signature voice. Oddly decent.
12. The First Noel. Weird as it is, even this late in the album, to hear Dylan backed by strings and dulcimer and singing with a choir, it works. It's quite nice, really.
13. The Christmas Island. Ok, this really is pretty weird. It's a Hawaiian-themed Christmas song, complete with mellow slide guitars and background singers cooing "aloha-ay, aloha-ay" behind Bob. It's not bad, mind you. In fact, it's sort of nice to hear a Christmas song I've never heard before. It is pretty weird, though.
14. The Christmas Song. This version is pretty good, but it's also the only song on the album where I feel that Bob is genuinely outclassed by a previous version. To put it bluntly, Nat King Cole pretty much owns this song, as far as I'm concerned. Once his version was recorded, no other was or would ever be needed. This is alright, though. It's not a bad little ditty, and Bob sings it pretty well.
15. O' Little Town Of Bethlehem. Is that apostrophe next to the O in the title of these old songs really necessary? I always thought you could just write "O little Town..." and it would be fine. I've always like this song. Dylan and his group go through it roughly as slowly as anyone could be expected to and still get away with it, carried by a bowed upright bass and light strumming on an acoustic guitar. A pleasant closer for a pleasant album.
Well, if I had any due diligence to perform, vis-a-vis this blog and Bob Dylan's Christmas album, I feel that at this point my obligations have been met. If you think you might like to listen to this album while donning a ridiculous sweater and pouring yourself a tall glass of egg nog, you're probably right. If you don't think so, well, why ever not?