Why Christmas in the Heart Works
Add my name to the list of those initially skeptical about a Bob Dylan Christmas album. Dylan’s work over the past decade is masterful because of how it showcases his skill for lyricism in such a way that his trademark sandpaper-and-glue voice becomes an asset rather than a hindrance. The listener can identify with the aging bard as he looks back at life, reflecting upon successes, failures, and the mysteries we mere mortals never quite pin down, though they hound us nonetheless. Dylan’s recent albums have received critical acclaim, sold relatively well, and still frequently work their way to the top of my playlist. How, then, can this Dylan pull off a Christmas album, a genre better suited for the likes of Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby? It didn’t seem possible. As a dedicated admirer who will purchase anything Bob puts out, the possibility that this album would end up in my dad’s basement gathering dust seemed less depressing when I learned that all of Dylan’s royalties for Christmas in the Heart will go to Feeding America, in perpetuity.
This disc won’t be headed toward a storage bin in dad’s basement any time soon. Dylan’s absolute sincerity kept me from writing this album off after a few listens. Serious Christmas standards such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “The First Noel” succeed because Dylan sings with a conviction impossible to ignore. The lighter selections (“Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Christmas Island,” Must Be Santa”) work because Dylan’s clearly having fun with the arrangements, encouraging listeners to join in the revelry.
Last week, Dylan himself confirmed the sincerity many of us have detected, while sitting for an interview with Bill Flanigan:
BF: You really give a heroic performance of O’ LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM The way you do it reminds me a little of an Irish rebel song. There’s something almost defiant in the way you sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.
BD: Well, I am a true believer.
Also telling is Dylan’s reaction to the Chicago Tribune analysis:
BF: The Chicago Tribune felt this record needed more irreverence. Doesn’t that miss the point?
BD: Well sure it does, that’s an irresponsible statement anyway. Isn’t there enough irreverence in the world? Who would need more? Especially at Christmas time.
Shame on the Trib, because “irreverence” is a theme foreign to Dylan’s work. His corpus contains many instances of internal struggle with God, in relationship to the individual or humanity at large, but never does he deal in flat-out irreverence. Dylan’s work is rather unidimensional as far as “God movement” is concerned: we might take a few steps back every now and again, and we might end up scratching our heads in confusion, but we’re always moving forward toward the One Who Is – and He’s always happy to see us along the way. Christmas in the Heart is less complex than Dylan’s original material, but the movement toward God is absolutely the same.
In the end, Dylan’s Christmas album reminds me of that old guy at midnight Mass. He can’t sing like the choir, but he belts it all out from memory. And it comes from the heart.