Friday, October 16, 2009

Bob Dylan-Christmas In The Heart

This was initially a difficult review for me. Every prejudice, preconceived notion and bad feeling about the commercialism of Christmas and the patent absurdity of Dylan doing a Christmas album prevented me from thinking about it clearly. Now, after listening to it three or four times I’m starting to have an inkling about what the man is up to. Similar to the albums of traditional folksongs he has done (“Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong”) he has embraced the genre of Christmas songs as the folkloric Americana that they are. When he put out versions of songs like “Froggy Went-a Courtin” I had to question why the greatest songwriter of his generation felt compelled to do such a thing. After living with it for a while, and living with the all-encompassing rootsiness of his last few albums, and reading his illuminating autobiography, I began to understand that all the things that influenced him were equal in his mind. All the things that have made him who he is are of similar weightiness in his appreciation of what makes up his own art. I have certainly noticed this with my own taste. Things from my childhood are given the same value in my heart (if not my head). For instance, I have children’s albums that I adore with the same fervor as I do The Beatles first albums because to my untrained palette they were equal-it was all just songs I liked to sing. No understanding of production value, or poetic intent or any of that shit -- just B.I.N.G.O. and bingo was his name-o.

Now, I am not suggesting that Dylan has no critical faculties left, and that all songs are the same to him. I am suggesting that he has made the intellectual decision that Christmas music is part of the American experience, and was part of his experience growing up and well, why not? With that said, how is it? It’s pretty interesting. Similar to his last few albums, Dylan has blurred the lines between corny nostalgia and humble reverence. He certainly gets that these songs (“Here Comes Santa Claus,” Winter Wonderland” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” etc.) are as hackneyed as a Lawrence Welk TV special, but they also have a sincere resonance for most Americans who are honest with themselves. If “I'll Be Home For Christmas” doesn’t choke you up at some level, you might want to check your pulse. If not for the sentimentality expressed in the lyrics and melody, than for the realization that our own lives never have and never will resemble the homespun edifice that our society has built up around the idea of Christmas. Suicides increase around Christmas every year because the thing we really have in common on that day is that our lives are not what the songs say they should be. So, whether you are a Christmas true-believer, or a sad Christmas non-believer, the stuff of the holiday-songs, images, foods, family gatherings-are a real part of all of our emotional lives. Dylan’s take on it is to embrace the sounds of his own experience and the result is a production and performance style that sounds like a lost session of the “Firestone Presents Family Christmas Songs” series that so many Americans are familiar with. Until he opens his mouth that is: and then it is the raunchin’ phlegmy wheeze we know as Dylan’s modern voice. There is a moment of disbelief, then hilarity, then a little more hilarity, and then it settles in to a kind of hallucinogenic mash-up of old world sounds and other-worldly vocalizations. It is almost like listening to a Salvation Army band playing down the block, but right below your window is some toothless geezer singing along with them. They float up together like so many wisps of smoke to your window and then, in spite of the incongruities and just plain weirdness of it all, you find yourself transported to some sacred, private place where you are alone with your hopes and failures-all on Christmas morning. Christmas In The Heart is a strange, complicated, piece of the Dylan canon. It is hard to fully grasp what he is doing, but the feeling it leaves you with ultimately is bittersweet poignance.
Paul Epstein

1 comment:

Gregory D. Rothbard said...

Loved your commentary on Dylan's new album. So many critics have panned it for not being a polished Christmas Album. I love the fact that you showed the flaws, but also showed that the flaws make the man that we call our modern poet: Bob Dylan.