Dylan's heart, not voice, in right place

Thursday, December 17, 2009

There are lots of things I like, but they don't necessarily go together. You can put Scotch whiskey and tacos at the top of that list. On their own, both are outstanding. They just aren't a good pair.

There are other examples: snow and sandals, rain and golf, cigarettes and good health, Pop Rocks and Coke.

Now we can add another entry to that list: Bob Dylan and Christmas music.

Before we go any further, let's make it clear that Dylan did his Christmas CD for charity. I think the world of him for that. I'll get back to it later.

Being in the Christmas spirit, I recently picked up Dylan's Christmas in the Heart, and my expectations were tempered, at best. I've loved Dylan's work since I was a teenager. I've loved Christmas music for as long as I can remember. But there was something about the thought of Dylan singing a tender Christmas hymn like "O' Little Town of Bethlehem" that seemed a bit wrong to me.

As it turned out, I was pretty much right. While never a technically "good" voice, I've always enjoyed the character in Dylan's voice. It's always been perfect for calling for social change ("Blowin' in the Wind" or "Hurricane") or telling a tragic story ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"). It's even good for just a fun song.

It takes a much different voice to carry the reverence of songs like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O' Come All Ye Faithful," "The First Noel" and "O' Little Town of Bethlehem." At 68 years old, Dylan quite simply doesn't possess that voice.

Similarly disappointing are "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Silver Bells" and "The Christmas Song." Dylan's voice is just a bit too worn.

As I listened to these songs, my mind drifted to the sound of Tom Waits' voice. In Waits' voice, like Dylan's, you seem to hear every disappointment of the man's life, along with every cigarette he's ever smoked.

Unfortunately for Dylan, I would have gone into a Tom Waits Christmas collection wanting to hear it that way. There's a tragicomedy quality to Waits' work that lets him get away with it.

With that said, Dylan is able to pull off a few of the songs in admirable fashion. "Here Comes Santa Claus" leads off the collection, and brightened my outlook of what was too come. It's a fun song, and Dylan seems to have fun with it.

The other fun songs like "Christmas Island" and "The Christmas Blues" also work in their own way. The latter is one of those songs that make you smile in spite of their grim subject matter. Dylan has always had a gift for those.

Given that talent, it would have been nice to see him tackle something like "Pretty Paper." It doesn't take a perfect voice to master that song (See also: Willie Nelson); it takes the ability to tell a great story.

"The Christmas Blues" is also the only song on which Dylan breaks out his trusty old harmonica. More harmonica throughout might have helped the overall effort.

The brightest spot is "Must Be Santa," a song I was unfamiliar with before this album. It is the most fun song of the 15 on the album, and sounds like it had to be the most fun to record.

The tone-setter this one is the accordion work of David Hidalgo, making this a polka number that speeds up even more to sounding like a carnival by the end. My personal favorite line comes when Dylan is calling out the names of the reindeer: "Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton."

It's moments like this Dylan should have run with more.

(And as long as we're here, couldn't we have gotten a cover shot of Dylan in a Santa hat? I'm not asking for too much.)

My spin: Pass

The content of Christmas in the Heart probably calls for a traditional grade (and a low one, at that), but I can't do it. There are two reasons.

The first is, it's Bob Dylan. If it weren't for him, I never would have spent as much time as I do listening to and thinking about music.

The second, and more important, reason is proceeds from Dylan's album are going to fight hunger around the globe. Honestly, people, that's what Christmas is all about -- giving. This is the man who wrote "Gotta Serve Somebody," and now he's putting it into action, serving those who need it most.

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