Santa Dropped Bob Dylan's Christmas album down MOJO's chimney last night, and as we celebrated with premature mince pies and stollen it provided plenty of food for thought.
Overall, it's without a doubt the most minor and oddest record in Bob's canon. The 15 selections are all straightforward Christmas standards and there's a cognitive dissonance on hearing "He Who Gargles With Battery Acid" backed by what sound like the Anita Kerr Singers. That Dylan's voice is shot (albeit poignantly so) isn't as glaring when he sings "If You Ever Go To Houston"; it's when he attempts "Winter Wonderland." And throughout Christmas In The Heart Dylan makes Tom Waits sound like Antony Hegarty.
Moreover, the mixture of kitsch and reverence is surreal, referencing both his jokey Theme Time Radio Hour persona and the Born-Again Bob's true believer trip, reinforced by graphics that include the Three Wise Men as well as Bettie Page in a scanty Santa get-up.
The two songs that thoroughly work are "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "Must Be Santa." The former has an inherent melancholia that suits Dylan's shredded throat and the latter is animated by David Hidalgo's jaunty Tex-Mex squeezebox, giving it a polka feel that resonates with the Eastern European immigrant communities of Dylan's Minnesota childhood. And The Christmas Blues boasts a soulful mouth harp solo by Sonny Boy Zimmerman.
If he'd played it less straight--more like his pal Eddie Gorodetsky's legendary Christmas anthologies--it might've been stronger. We would've recommended Robbie Robertson's haunting Christmas "Must Be Tonight" and Commander Cody's tongue-in-cheek "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas." Or perhaps a duet with Amy Winehouse on the Pogues' "A Fairytale Of New York." But then Bob always has to do it his way and, for better and worse, that's why we love him.
Tony Garnier, George Recile, and Donnie Herron (nice Hawaiian steel, Don) from the road band are here, as well as Hidalgo, jazz and soul legend Phil Upchurch on guitar, and studio vet Patrick Warren on piano, organ, and lots of celeste (naturally--it jingles like bells). There are seven background vocalists including Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald of L.A.-based Hot Licks-like duo The Ditty Bops, although there's nary a swung phrase here.
For one, Dylan biographer Larry "Ratso" Sloman digs it. He calls it "The Self Portrait of the 21st Century" and explains that "in context, I loved Self Portrait even though it was reviled by so many." (he's not alone) Sloman's Dylanological interpretation is that "Bob is the ghost of Christmas past beckoning us back to a time when 'peace on earth, goodwill to all' was still considered to be a possibility." Hey, who says Dylan no longer protests?
In all fairness, 100 per cent of the artist's royalties from the sale of this album will go to charity in perpetuity. Internationally, The World Food Programme and Crisis UK will benefit; in the US it will be Feeding America, which guarantees 1.4 million Americans will get fed this holiday season. All Dylan fans should show solidarity with Bob's mensch-mindedness and throw a few shekels down for the needy.
Furthermore, how often do we really listen to Christmas albums? Even classics like Phil Spector's or James Brown's? We suspect that most people spin these platters for no more than a week--if that. Yes, we will play this record over the holidays, as much to praise the Imp Of The Perverse as Jesus and Santa. And if MOJO wasn't privy to review copies, would we still buy it?
You're damn straight. Merry Christmas!
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