Bob Dylan, no stranger to reinvention, (read: natural evolution that gets largely over-evaluated and blown way out of proportion by career-academics and pseudo-bohemian music critics) released maybe the most unexpected album of his career six years ago today. To be clear, Dylan, like any artist, can do whatever the fuck he wants, but so few have the artistic integrity and scope of musical knowledge that Dylan has accumulated over a lifetime and actually exercise it.
That's what Christmas in the Heart is: Dylan doing his favorite, classic Christmas tunes backed, as usual, by a killer band made up of the best sidemen in the business, including Dylan bandleader and bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo.
On the surface Christmas in the Heart seems like a one-off from the bard whose voice sounds more and more like it has been shot, skinned and hung out to drain itself in a hill country smokehouse. However, live, that decomposing corpse of a gullet has more range than ever and he uses it to great effect. To me, he has never sounded better than his last show at The Majestic (5/7/15) where old, white people that could afford $300 front row tickets split in disgust at either his septuagenarian vocal state or his refusal to shit out a victory lap of a show, reproducing "Mr. Tambourine Man," "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" or "Like a Rolling Stone," note for note, inflection for inflection.
Obviously, Chrysler and IBM commercials withstanding, Dylan just couldn't give two shits what we think about his output. No change there. He occupies an academic realm that he rarely gets credit for in mainstream criticism. He's fully aware of the histories of so much American music, and in this case holiday tunes, that he sees himself as merely following in the tradition of the great crooners and torch singers of the past. He doesn't feel hindered by what he was up to in the decades preceding, even if we hang a poor-fitting crown upon him proclaiming he's the king of lyrical surrealism, blues, folk, pop, etc. etc.
This is continuously the case with Dylan's output: his past images and assumed identities freeze up and lose their fluidity in the cold climes of criticism. This is exactly the reaction he has received anytime he has taken on a new dimension of popular American music, his most recent LP Shadows in the Night, only being the most recent example. Bob Dylan, the man and artist, is the same as any other, a myriad of influences and pastiches of what feels good, looks good and sounds good all working in tandem distilled through his psyche, balls, guts and throat. The fact that we can't get over this simple reality, especially in regards to Robert Zimmerman is a testament to our fickleness, ignorance and, often, immaturity.
To be sure, some of the tunes on this record fall short and that perfect, melancholy whimsy that made Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole purveyors of rich, unnameable winterlust just isn't attainable, but who would want to tell Dylan that he just doesn't have the range for "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" or "O Little Town of Bethlehem." "The First Noel" is just too fast. "Here Comes Santa Claus," and "It Must Be Santa" are best suited for folks unfamiliar with Dylan's oeuvre. Perhaps he was aiming for something to play for his grandkids. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," is enriched by Dylan's gravelled attempts, as is "The Christmas Song," despite the unconventional, rushed phrasing. Either way, much like Shadows in the Night, when a classic song has enough depth ingrained in its melody, lyrics and emotion (that "rich, unnameable winterlust") Dylan can be the perfect harbinger for the holidays, or heartbreak, or both.
Or, maybe it's just a hilarious novelty. To you and yours.