I believe it's a sin to play Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving and that people who violate this rule will be going to Hell — a stiff price to pay for a couple more spins of “The Little Drummer Boy”.
I took a chance on Eternal Damnation, however, in order to listen to Bob Dylan's new Christmas album Christmas In the Heart, because I wanted to review it. I figured that if it was any good, folks might want to have a copy in hand when the Christmas Season begins. In short, I risked the fires of Hell so you wouldn't have to.
It was a wise move, as it turns out, because some of the mainstream media reviews of it have been, well . . . “insane” might be the nicest way to put it. A couple of dimwits who review rock music for NPR compared it, in its unmitigated awfulness, to William Shatner's dramatic readings of rock lyrics, which have become camp classics. There's nothing camp about Dylan's Christmas record, and nothing awful about it, either — it is, in fact, one of the great documents of American music.
Dylan was always a strange old man, even when he was in his twenties. Over the years he's gotten stranger and older. He's far more radical now, though, than he was as a kid and he's grasped the essential truth of radicalism in our time — it means going back to the old stuff that got us to where we were before we lost our way in the God-awful catastrophe that was the 20th century.
Dylan's Christmas album has a 19th-Century Currier & Ives type image on the cover. Many of the songs on the album were done in the past by Bing Crosby, whom Dylan admires greatly. Dylan sings the songs straight in bright, slightly cornball arrangements, often with an accompanying mixed-voice choir behind him. Don't be fooled, though — there is no irony whatsoever in his approach.
What Dylan is doing is taking us on a tour of American popular Christmas music — the stuff we grew up with, the stuff our parents grew up with, country Christmas songs and big-band Christmas songs and 50s-era lounge-music Christmas songs and ersatz Hawaiian Christmas songs, carols sung on street corners and hymns sung in churches. There's even a German Christmas polka, to which David Hidalgo adds some Tejano accordian — which of course derives from polka music played in German communities in south Texas which Mexican-American musicians picked up on and made their own.
The journey is phantasmagorical, like one of the journeys Scrooge is taken on during his night of ghostly visitations.
The result is a Christmas album like no other. Dylan's gnarled late-career voice has a built-in poignancy as he tries to sing these sweet songs sweetly, making them seem like crude homemade gifts brought to the stable in Bethlehem by a child or a troubled old man . . . just the sort of gifts that would mean the most to a guy like Jesus.
The true miracle of Dylan's versions of these songs is that he sings the words as though he believes them — believes in the good news that will bring joy to the world, peace on earth. For all the nostalgic references in the arrangements, Dylan makes the songs seem brand new — revivified by faith and commitment and hope.
Before I heard this record I would have said that the best Christmas album of all time was Luciano Pavarotti's O Holy Night, in which the great tenor sings with the same faith and commitment and hope. Dylan's funkier work can stand beside it, though — in part because of Dylan's technical limitations as a singer. Pavarotti sings like an angel, supremely confident in the truth of miracles. Dylan sings like an old drunk at a midnight Christmas Eve service desperately hoping for a miracle he has no choice but to believe in, all other options having been exhausted. Both sing from the heart, but it just may be that the old man with the broken voice is somewhat closer to the spirit of the first Christmas, when there was no room at the inn, and a young woman had to give birth to the hope of the world in a stable.
In these times, when the ancient holiday has been commercialized into a neurotic nightmare of shopping and guilt, the only place you can find a meaningful sort of Christmas is in the heart. That's where Dylan went looking for it, and that's where he found it, still in reasonably good shape, mirabile dictu.
Get your copy of Christmas In the Heart now and prepare to play it often — but please, in the name of all that's holy, after Thanksgiving.
[Go here for some more thoughts on Christmas In the Heart.]