I thought I entered the Twlight Zone the other day when I heard the first cut from the new and first Bob Dylan Christmas album. I grew up in the state next to where Dylan came from, in Iowa, and he became quite the legend for a lot of reasons. But traditional Christmas was not one of them.
It's true he drifted in and out of his Jewish faith and even got into Christianity at one point, including performing before Pope John Paul II. But Dylan is Dylan and one never knew what to expect next. When you hear him singing Latin on this album you will simply not believe it.
Typical Dylan, every cent in royalty goes to feeding the homeless of the world. So for Dylan fans and those who whould be Dylan fans, I have included an interesting review of the album and two music videos of the songs. If you double click on the music videos it will enlarge the video. You may not believe your eyes and ears.
Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart
Bob Dylan and carols is a cocktail that really shouldn't work – especially not in Latin. But Richard Williams finds himself seduced by a punk-Dickensian Santa
Thursday 10 December 2009 15.08 GMT
Quirky or turkey? ... Dylan's first Christmas album represents yet another erratic departure
There used to be a civilised convention among reviewers – perhaps there still is, in some sectors of the arts – that performances given for the benefit of charity were exempt from the normal process of criticism. They could be reported, and admired when appropriate, but not dissected or evaluated in the usual way. Since the proceeds from the sales of Bob Dylan's Christmas album will be devoted to feeding homeless people in every territory in which it is released, the critic is clearly not entitled to consider beginning his review with the celebrated single-line exclamation employed by Greil Marcus to open his Rolling Stone review of Dylan's Self Portrait back in 1970: "What is this shit?"
A similar reaction might be the normal, unthinking reponse to the news that the author of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll has chosen to offer for public enjoyment his versions of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles/O Come, All Ye Faithful, its first verse sung in Latin, with characteristic inflections: "Ven-EE-tay ador-ay-MOOSE." Yet here they are, along with their secular equivalents such as The Little Drummer Boy, Winter Wonderland and Mel Torme's The Christmas Song ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/ Jack Frost nipping at your nose …"), in arrangements calculated not to disturb the seasonal family gathering.
Getting on for half a century ago, no one painstakingly learning the chords to the young troubadour's anti-establishment broadsides could have imagined such an outcome. But ever since the abrupt move back to a simpler method of musical presentation with John Wesley Harding in 1968, Dylan's erratic progress has invited his listeners to poke away behind the surfaces of his apparently enigmatic behaviour. Perhaps the clue here is that "Jack Frost" has been the alias used in the production credits of his studio albums for the past dozen years, since Time Out of Mind. Or perhaps not. This time, perhaps enigmas and clues are beside the point.
Using his own excellent band and a group of singers whose mellifluous responses to his own rheumy growl hark back to the sounds of the Andrews Sisters, Dylan finds an appropriate setting for each of these Christmas chestnuts, from the reverent to the jovial. The blend of idioms is familiar from Love and Theft and Modern Times, in which he brought together elements of country, bluegrass and a sort of genteel salon music to provide a background to his renewed fondness for old-fashioned crooning.
The result is polished without being glib, and a sympathetic listener may find it addictive. The musicians Dylan brought to Britain earlier this year, augmented by David Hildalgo of Los Lobos on accordion, mandolin, violin and guitar, and the great Chicago session guitarist Phil Upchurch, whose earliest successes predate Dylan's own, distinguish themselves on even the most unpromising material. According to Hildalgo, quoted in the current issue of Uncut magazine, the sessions were both impromptu and highly concentrated: Dylan and the musicians listened to various recordings of each of the selections, and then decided on the best approach. It seems safe to say, however, that no one has ever tackled O Come All Ye Faithful quite like this.
Is he sincere? Does he mean it? Is this an ageing entertainer's Christmas gift to his grandchildren, or he is winding us up, knowing that at some time in the future he will repudiate it, as he did Self Portrait? When he sings with a perfectly straight face about the nativity ("Where meek souls will receive him/ Still the dear Christ enters in," for example), is it the product of a resurgence of his interest in Christianity, or simply intended to reflect a generic sense of holidaytime goodwill? You can only chuckle at his ability to keep us guessing when you turn past the conventional cover painting of a horse-drawn carriage speeding through snowdrifts to find a photograph of Bettie Page, the famous cheesecake model, dressed up in a Santa outfit complete with suspenders and bulging bra.
Sceptics should go to YouTube and watch the Must Be Santa video clip. This rollicking song, featuring a rattled-out list of US presidents, is set to a high-kicking shuffle rhythm, decorated by Hidalgo's exuberant Tex-Mex accordion, and delivered by Dylan as a sort of punk-Dickensian Father Christmas from amid the incipient mayhem of a slightly out-of-hand Christmas Eve party. More fun than Renaldo and Clara, for sure.
This is his Christmas, and he seems to want us to enjoy it. But when the grandchildren have left and the decorations have come down in the Dylan household, perhaps he can be persuaded to take a well-deserved break from recording and get on with the really important job of finishing Chronicles Vol 2.