Bob Dylan has been through numerous musical phases over the years: protest singer and icon, electric folk pioneer, country singer, hopeless romantic and gospel singer. Yet few could have guessed Dylan would release a Christmas album.
“Christmas in the Heart” is Dylan’s 34th studio album and his first charity project. Released Oct. 12, 2009, all royalties from the album’s sale in the United States have gone to Feeding America while all sales overseas have gone to World Food Programme and Crisis, both based in the United Kingdom. These organizations are designed to fight and solve the problem of hunger around the world.
Musically, there is no better time to release a Christmas album in Dylan’s long career. His bluesy, raspy voice that has come with old age and cigarette smoking is one that fits with a Christmas mood. It’s the type of voice that is designed for classic arrangements.
There are few surprises in these songs, Dylan playing the classic hymns and carols in the way they were meant to be played. When Dylan went electric in 1965, his greatest critics were from the folk community who found Dylan’s electric interpretations of folk songs to be problematic and disrespectful to tradition. Critics cannot say the same for his interpretations of Christmas songs. These timeless songs remain just that in Dylan’s album.
Dylan captures a true Christmas mood by incorporating a jazzy, R&B guitar sound that floats effortlessly throughout the album. His background singers strengthen this mood and give his voice a more graceful edge at times. Using these elements, Dylan does justice to these traditional holiday songs, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in which his voice is featured above soft, mellow instrumentation. It evokes that warm, homey feeling present throughout the holidays.
While Dylan plays the album essentially straight forward, he chooses some more unconventional holiday songs.
“Must Be Santa” sounds more like an Irish drinking song with a whining accordion and an upbeat tempo. A fun, rambunctious music video of this song, complete with Dylan rocking a cheap wig and a top hat, can be found here.
The high point of the album is Dylan’s rendition of “The Christmas Blues.” Dylan has been reaching back to his blues roots in his recent studio albums and shows he can do it with cheer in this song.
“Christmas in the Heart” will certainly be more enjoyable for the Dylan enthusiast, but there are points in the album that have the potential to touch the casual listener as well. It will at least put a listener in the Christmas spirit with timeless classics, reworked with a soulful voice and a laid back feel.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Davis Brown at Brownfd@colorado.edu.