It seems that everyone’s talking about this years’ release of Bob Dylan’s attempt at a Christmas record. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground on this one. Journalists seem to love it (with caveats about irony and refreshing awkwardness) or hate it. I’m not going to throw my words onto the pig-pile and write an actual review... but merely muse on the concept a bit. Just take it as a given that my personal opinion of what I’ve heard of the record (I have to be upfront and admit I haven’t heard all of it, but browsing streamed snippets, internet bootlegs and the clips played on various NPR segments have been MORE than enough) falls on the more negative side of the heap. I tend to agree with Phoenix-based musician Brian Kelly (The Twilight Showdown, Borachio, etc.) that “Bob Dylan's ‘Christmas in the Heart’ sounds like someone recorded their drunk grandpa singing along to a Christmas cd in the bathroom.” (via Facebook.) If I thought it SOUNDED like a bad idea, I never would have guessed that it could be WORSE than I expected. But it is.
I have to confess, as a music-snob, that I’ve always been embarrassingly indifferent about Bob Dylan. In general, I have quite a bit of respect for him and like quite a bit of his material, but in small doses. I would never describe myself as a “fan.”
Let’s face it, there’s a heap of musicians out there that are better at writing songs than playing those songs. These are artists whose true value shines best when you hear their songs covered and performed by artists other than themselves. Dylan’s on that list for me... along with Leonard Cohen, Leadbelly (as much as I might personally enjoy both), and Weezer (first two albums only; everything after is garbage when played by anyone). For one reason or another, I tend to even prefer other people knocking-off Dylan’s SOUND and STYLE than hearing Dylan’s original rendition. Sure, I’ll admit to the sacrilege; I would far rather sit down and listen to Conor Oberst blatantly ripping Dylan-isms than cue up an actual Dylan record. And I don’t think that has all that much to do with my age. I just think for some song-writers like Dylan, it sometimes takes the ideas and instruments of others to iron out the kinks, to pull the pearl from the muddy oyster.
Dylan, for me, is a songwriter. And he’s brilliant and influential enough at it that the aspects of his records that I find hard to actually LISTEN to can be taken with a grain of salt most of the time.
But now, with this excruciating Christmas record, he’s taken what he’s good at out of the picture and left us with the rest; we get the muddy oyster-shell, and someone’s already stolen the pearl. This is a SONGWRITER releasing an entire record of covers, standards, classics. Think of how painful the reverse-scenario is... a classic-rock cover-band making the mistake of, after decades banging out recognizable radio-fare, debuting a couple of new “originals” to the drunk crowd that they entertain at the biker-dive. Let’s be realistic; NO ONE wants to hear flat-line, uninspired knock-offs of Credence songs (devoid of the catchy hooks) sandwiched between “I Want to Rock and Roll All Night” and “You Shook Me All Night Long”... and yet that’s what these attempts always inevitably sound like. And the lines at the rest-room and the bar suddenly lengthen at the expense of the dance-floor. Shock.
I don’t honestly know, in retrospect, why I expected this record (which I didn’t even expect to like) to be a bit better than it actually is. When I try to fathom how Bob Dylan doing Christmas songs could possibly NOT suck, the sound in my head sounds more like a Nick Cave or Tom Waits Christmas album than one that Dylan could ever do.
Now THOSE would be records that I would actually want to hear. Sure, they would be just as guaranteed to have their share of queasy, questionable, and cheesy moments... but I have the feeling they would be a whole lot more entertaining.... and at least a bit less painful.