Four years on Christmas In The Heart is as timely as ever…A festive appraisal of Bob’s Xmas album.
Every year, soon after Halloween, the inevitable happens………There are fewer hours of daylight and the first blast of Slade’s celebration of Christmas screams out of every shop’s muzak system…….then we’re hurtling into another round of seasonal rituals to once again create the magic of Christmas…..often based on the nostalgia of Christmas past.
Prior to the release of Christmas In The Heart (CITH) in 2009, I had thought for many years that the Phil Spector Christmas Album was pretty much unbeatable as a way of getting into the spirit, interspersed with regular fixes of the pure genius that is Fairytale of New York. But since Christmas 2009 , CITH has become as much a part of my Festive Season build up as wondering if my mother has yet to read the book I gave her the previous Christmas……
Bob’s Christmas recording attracted all the hype that accompanies the release of any Dylan album, but many fans were surprised that he had even recorded it at all. Great credit was also given that several hunger-relief charities would benefit from album royalty payments.
On first hearing it seemed that the record was a pastiche of Christmas songs regularly featured in the oeuvre of Dylan’s contemporaries. It certainly sounded like a lot of fun had been had in the recording studio. The hilarious video of Must Be Santa (posted here) added to the spirit of the piece and widened interest outside Dylan’s usual fanbase.
This Christmas is the fourth year that CITH has been a staple part of my Christmas music menu and at the end of a successful year for Dylan with the acclaim that greeted Tempest and touring success, I have listened to the album in more detail. As a result, I think of it as being more of a homage to American musical styles, via the medium of Christmas music
Dylan became familiar with the different genres of festive music from his childhood in Midwest America. Tied into a knowledge of a great range of styles (as frequently demonstrated in Theme Time Radio Hour) it is logical and consistent with his usual approach that Dylan’s Christmas album would include a wide variety of carols and songs. Many of the musicians are the regulars included on recent albums plus the Mixed Voice Singers adding superb textures. From silky Andrews Sisters’ style harmonies on the swinging Winter Wonderland and Christmas Island (featuring delightful swooping slide guitar from Donnie Herron) to the final offering, the more serious O Little Town of Bethlehem containing rich combination of male and female voices.
The whimsical approach to CITH is completed by the artwork. On the front cover, a classic Victorian style image of an open sleigh racing through the snow and on the reverse, a night scene depicting the Three Wise Men following The Star of Bethlehem. But it is the sleevenote illustrations that show the lighter side of Christmas in Bobworld including a raunchy picture of 1950s American pin up icon, Bettie Page.
Ultimately, CITH is a fascinatng footnote to Bob’s ever evolving career and a perfect remedy to the anxiety of perusing numerous Christmas lists.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas……..