Bob on Bob

In the new issue, I reviewed Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart, which I think has received a lot of cheap negative reviews based on the simple premise that it’s funny and bad if someone with his voice sings Christmas songs. Jody Rosen answers the “Is it a joke?” question here, writing:

Christmas in the Heart is less a joke or a provocation than a polemic. He’s harnessing his unrivaled cred to remind us that Christmas ditties are as deeply American—and often, as just plain deep—as anything Alan Lomax ever recorded in an Appalachian holler. Singing (or rasping) “Silver Bells” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Dylan is the haggard, haunting voice of the musical collective unconscious—our Ghost of Christmas Past.

and Dylan himself did here, saying:

Critics like that are on the outside looking in. They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to.They would have no gut level understanding of me and my work, what I can and can’t do – the scope of it all. Even at this point in time they don’t know what to make of me. These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs. You have to play them straight, too… The songs don’t require much acting. They kind of play themselves.

  • JimA

    Thank you as usual, Alex, for some thoughts on music that go beyond the cliched (where's that overstrike on my keyboard when I need it?) and faddish.

    As a fellow lover of Christmas music, I wonder if the issue with Bob's “Christmas in the Heart” isn't that it's not good—I think it is—but rather that it's too easy, at least for him. A big part of Dylan's own sense of irony is that he feels he's not being ironic but only is taken as such. So, he may be singing “Silver Bells” straight, but he still knows that we know that he's Dylan. Unless he's more idiot savant than people think he is, I don't see how a Dylan Christmas album, no matter its content, can come across as anything except mawkish. Dylan needs to stop reading Greil Marcus and write better songs.

    I'll take the Fleshtones or Elvis for Christmas albums over Bob, because non self-referential Dylan is somehow overly self-conscious to my ears. Then again, with Dylan, I can't escape the sinking feeling that the joke's on me.

    Hooray for Santa Claus,

  • alexrawls

    I don't hear “Christmas in the Heart” as a joke on anybody, nor do I hear much recent Bob as ironic. As has almost always been the case, people's responses to Dylan have had a lot to do with their perceptions of him – perceptions largely of their own making because he's so rarely spoken publicly without some sort of mask (and his DJ persona is yet another mask). For me, much of Dylan's last decade has been about revisiting the music that inspired him in the first place, the songs of America's common folks. That includes folk, but it isn't limited to folk. He has performed those songs, but he has also written songs in their mode and vocabulary, blurring the lines between then and now, imitation and creation, and tribute and interrogation. I see “Christmas in the Heart” along those lines, revisiting what Harry Shearer referred to in my interview with him as the American canon.

    I think the other part of the anti-“Christmas in the Heart” sentiment is rooted in what people want Dylan to be, people invested in Bob the Bard. I can almost understand people being bummed that he didn't write the songs, but it's hard to imagine that those people would be made happier by Christmas songs that Dylan wrote. I suspect if those who criticized the albums along those lines could keep it real, they'd admit that they're still waiting for the next “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks.”

    … but your post also reminds me that this year I fell in love with Elvis' Christmas album again, and his version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is cooler and crazier than I realized for a long time. When he sings that Santa “knows we're all God's children / and that makes everything right,” we've crossed into a spiritually complicated place.