Pretend you’re Bob Dylan and it’s 2009.
You’ve been doing your thing for somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years. You get nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for your lyrics. Somebody made a lightly fictionalized movie about you where you’re split into six different characters, because that’s how many distinct personas people think you have. You did a satellite radio show where every session had a theme, because you’re pretty hardcore like that (and you have the extensive music library to do it with). And somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years into your musical career, you decide to record a Christmas album.
This presents some challenges for you. First and foremost: for marketing reasons, you probably shouldn’t fill a whole album full of original Christmas songs, even if you could. (You probably could. You’re Bob Dylan.) So you’re going to have to pick some old standards to cover.
Second, the reason they’re standards is because everybody covers them. So you’re going to have to figure out an arrangement of the standards that is as distinct as possible while trying to keep the songs recognizable and still pleasing yourself with the results. A tricky prospect at best.
Third, you’re Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize For Literature Nominee On Account Of Your Good Song Lyrics. You have to admit that you probably wouldn’t be nominated for the Nobel Prize For Smooth Vocals. You probably wouldn’t have been nominated back in the day, either. You’ve been doing this in the neighborhood of fifty years, over which time your voice has roughened to the point where you can hit maybe five notes that don’t sound strained.
In other words, you sound just a little like the love child of David Lee Roth and Zorak.
So, Bob Dylan. What do you do?
If your answer is “crank the nostalgia up to eleven and let ‘er rip,” congratulations. That’s exactly what Bob Dylan did with Christmas In The Heart.
There are Christmas albums I love better both ironically (A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!) and unironically (Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island (HATERS TO THE LEFT)), but Dylan’s Christmas album is the only one I regard as evidence that its creator is just as sly as everybody seems to think he is.
For those of us in Dylan’s audience who were born twenty-three years or more after he released his first album, his music is inextricably tied into the past. It’s music that can anchor you to a particular place and time. Nostalgia does the same thing, but in reverse. Instead of an artifact, like a song, that places you back at a specific place in time, nostalgia is an abstract concept — the desire for a specific place in time.
And that’s the thing about standards: they lend themselves really well to nostalgia.
So Bob Dylan, being smart enough to know that the majority of his best-known output came forty years ago, and knowing that one of the primary functions of Christmas music is to foster nostalgia, chose to arrange and perform his selected standards in a manner that conjures even more nostalgia. His backing vocalists sound like they could have been imported straight from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” — recorded twenty-one years before the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The overall effect is one of Bob Dylan messing around with a karaoke track.
It helps that he’s clearly having fun with it. What he doesn’t have in tone, he makes up for in phrasing. I can’t even say that some of the results are unintentionally hilarious, because I don’t know that it’s unintentional.
Long story short, these are songs we mostly know, carefully crafted to hide as many of Dylan’s vocal issues as possible (very few key changes), arranged to sound as timeless to current audiences as possible. I have to take off my hat to Dylan, even as some of the notes he hits make me cringe — he knows who and what he is, and he knows how to turn his weaknesses into advantages.
It’s a clever Christmas album, which is hard to come by after more than a century of popular Christmas music, and that’s why it’s on pretty steady rotation right now around my place. Christmas In The Heart makes me about as cheerful as Buffett’s Christmas Island — and that’s saying a lot.
(I won’t defend the Jimmy Buffett. Some things you just love, and that’s that. But how about a little “Jingle Bells”, to make my argument for me?)