Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Christmas In the Heart

Christmas In the Heart (2009)

When the news hit the street that Dylan would be releasing a Christmas album, most people thought it would be a joke. There were all sorts of rumors, including a rumor that persisted a little while afterwards that Dylan had actually written an album of Christmas originals but shelved them after not liking how they turned out. Despite people’s misgivings, and judging from online message boards many Dylan fans refuse to even listen to this album, sales went well. This topped the Christmas chart for several week. That is good, as all proceeds in perpetuity go to Feed America, Crisis UK, or the World Food Programme, depending on which country it is bought in. Also, the music is great. Dylan looks back to the golden age of Christmas music for inspiration, taking his lead from the original recordings of many of the iconic Christmas songs of the 40s and 50s, such as Dean Martin’s “Christmas Blues,” the Andrews Sisters’ “Christmas Island,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” on which he shuns “hang a star upon the highest bough” for the original “we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” He balances these with traditional carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Adeste Fidelis” (which he sings in Latin), and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”

In many ways, Dylan’s singing is better on this album than it has been in years, but I suspect that may be because the melodies to these songs are so deeply ingrained. Also, the musicianship is superb. David Hidalgo is back again, and joined this time by R&B guitarist Phil Upchurch, who has worked with jazz cats like Cannonball Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie, funk legends like Curtis Mayfield and Michael Jackson, to blues people like B. B. King and John Lee Hooker and doo-wop groups like The Dells and The Spaniels. All in all, a fine performance. The heavenly-sounding chorale is composed of a mix of singers, and includes the Ditty Bops, a great, underrated feminist folk-pop duo.

Best song: Here Comes Santa Claus – This was originally a Gene Autry song, and the steel guitar on Dylan’s version gives flourishes of the singing cowboy. What makes this song work, though, is what Dylan does right before the song ends. The last verse includes the lines “Peace on earth will come to all / if we just follow the light. / Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” The last two lines are repeated thrice at the end of the song. The chorus sings the first line and then Dylan responds with the second, and adds a biting, sardonic tone to each word. The first three lines are about God, about the spirit of giving and about love. The last line is about greed and self-centeredness. By emphasizing these last two lines, the notion that we should thank Jesus for a bounty of gifts we truly buy ourselves, Dylan mocks them. The trade-off of vocals emphasizes this in two ways. First of all, there is the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness. The chorus epitomizes commonly held notions of what defines beautiful singing. Perfect pitch, perfect harmonies – they can’t be beat. Dylan’s ragged growl, even on songs where he tries to turn it into a sweet croon, does not. This suggests that the first line, belief in Jesus, is a beautiful thing, and that the second, the commercialization of Christmas, is ugly, and Dylan’s voice, which becomes particularly hard-edged on these last lines, seems to bear out this suggestion. The other dichotomy emphasized here is that between construction and reality. The chorus is constructed. Even if they are not edited with some sort of software or studio trickery, they have been selected to create this ideal meld, and certainly take after take has been taken to get the exact sound desired. Dylan, on the other hand, is raw and ragged; he hasn’t been modified, or at least if he has he does not sound it. The artificiality associated with the sound of the chorus suggests that, at least in society, the message of Jesus rings hollow. Those who proselytize it don’t live it. Instead, the focus is placed on people’s very real desire for material objects, an obsession which is represented by Santa. The end result is that people in general tend to value the hollow as beautiful while their true desires are ugly. The ugliness of these desires, and the attraction to the hollowness, undermines the song’s upbeat demeanor. I don’t think Dylan is out to denigrate the song or the holiday, but I do feel as though the song, at least in my experience with it, sets up this powerful tension that suggests our own consumption is killing our faith by degrees.

Worst song: The First Noel – Around 2:09 the voice just falls apart. Dylan doesn’t have much to begin with nowadays, and too many Christmas songs have a range that just doesn’t work for him.


stranger nobody sees said...

Your moralizing is too vague and cliched. Materialism, at any time, or the commercialization of Christmas is not the fault or "fault" of the nativity story or accounts. Nor does hypocrisy or "hypocrisy" on the part of "true believers" have anything to do with the commercialization of Christmas or anyone's supposed greed in having too many presents. I you don't want to participate, then get out! Personally, I bought no presents but that could mean that the mean or greedy one is me!

What you say about ugly desires: this would be taken as judgemental if it came from "proselytizers". Anyone who feels their own desires may be ugly may need a Saviour. Receiving a Saviour has nothing to do with anyone's greed at Christmas (or anyone else's hypocrisy), but it may have something to do with non-recognition of such a need while being caught up in materialism at any time of the year. We're all consumers, as we're bellies that need to be fed, and it is a weak faith that would be killed by that.It is a well-worn cliche to say Christmas is commercialized. If you don't like it, just be a meany like me and don't buy anything.

Matt Groneman said...

I can understand your initial criticism. Certainly there is a bit of vagueness here and the writing was not as lucid on that bit as I had hoped. I feel it is unfair, though, to feel as though I'm faulting the nativity story, which isn't what I'm doing at all. If anything, I'm trying to suggest that "Here Comes Santa Claus," except for one or two lines, is divorced from the nativity story. It is mostly a secular song now, even if it was originally intended to be a blend between the secular and sacred. The nativity story is suggested only by the line "if we just follow the light," so I see it difficult to see how my post is an attack on the nativity story.

What interests me is that many contemporary versions of the song have dropped the sacred lines altogether, to make it wholly a song about Santa. Dylan not only brings those lines back, but emphasizes them by arranging them in such a way. The juxtaposition makes them stand out, and I'm trying to get at why he does that, to elucidate his purpose, not to push any agenda of my own.

I already owned up that the argument made in that bit is vague, but as for the cliche, I'm trying to argue how Dylan constructs meaning, not the meaning itself, and, based on your comments, it seems to be the meaning that you feel is cliche. In answer to that, here is Dylan from Theme Time Radio Hour:

"Some people just don't have the Spirit of Christmas. They think it's all about gift giving, though to be more honest I think a lot of them think it's more about gift getting. Christmas is not about running around the stores, spending money, and trying to buy people's love and affection."

That seems like a cliche message, and the trick with cliches is to do something different with them so they don't come off as stale. If Dylan comes out and says that, as he did there, it rings hollow. What he has to do, then, if he wants to get that message across, is suggest it in a new way, and all I am trying to do is explain how I see him trying to do that. I'm interested in looking at how the music functions as rhetoric -- not in endorsing or denigrating the message he has coded in the rhetoric.