In Defense Of Bob Dylan's Bonkers Christmas Album
Christmas music – some of it’s great, some of it is that goddamn Paul McCartney song. And while, as soon as December rolls around (way earlier if you work in customer service), we often celebrate the icons of holiday music like Nat King Cole, Vince Guaraldi, and Mariah Carey, this year we’d like to nominate another yuletide king for your consideration: Bob Dylan.
When Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart hit record stores in 2009, no one totally knew exactly what to think. Some fans literally believed it to be a “hoax.” But arguably, it’s one of the most important works of the music legend’s career. Seriously.
For one thing, it’s genuinely impressive that Dylan, then in his late 60s, was still able to shock people. After going electric in the ‘60s, becoming a born-again Christian in the ‘70s, and showing up on Dharma & Greg in the ‘90s for some reason, it seemed as though Dylan had no career surprises left in him. Then came news of his Christmas album, and in retrospect, singing songs about Santa and Baby Jesus is one of the most punk rock moves he could have made from a certain point of view.
The record itself is flawless in its weirdness. The arrangements of the familiar songs are calculatedly traditional and unabashedly old-fashioned – but Dylan’s vocals are as rough and gravelly as a country road paved with razor blades. Tracks like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” complete with backup singers and jaunty sleigh bells, sound like a drunken Tom Waits traveled back in time while possessed by the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, then burst into a Bing Crosby recording session, murdered him, and somehow forced all of the musicians to continue making an album. Merry Christmas.
It’s this contrast that, in a way, really captures the feeling of Christmas more than any other musical work. The discord between syrupy Christmas sentimentality and ragged unpleasant world-weariness strikes the perfect balance between comfort and anarchy. Which, for so many of us in real life, is the precarious tone that defines our holiday experience.
The album’s lone music video, “Must Be Santa,” highlighting a more obscure Christmas tune based on old German drinking songs, underscores this seasonal tension. It features a quaint holiday party that erupts into violence when a guest starts violently trashing the joint – all while Santa and Dylan (sporting some kind of Kato Kaelin wig) disapprovingly look on.
Christmas in the Heart wasn’t just a one-off novelty; its collection of earnest renditions of classic songs paved the way for the next stage of Dylan’s career, in which he released several albums pulling from the “Great American Songbook.” And the whole thing was ultimately for a good cause, with Dylan “uncharacteristically” donating his royalties in perpetuity to the charity Feeding America, who estimated they would be able to “provide meals to 1.4 million people” that holiday season alone, thanks to proceeds from the album. So maybe give it a try this year – or really just put on anything other than that living nightmare that is “Wonderful Christmastime.”
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Top Image: Columbia Records