It’s a truth universally acknowledged that musicians get worse at writing songs as they get older. Now before you say something like “How can you rag on the classics – what have you ever done?” – for which you would be taking quite a reasonable stance – like most people, I am not immune to the charms of early Bob Dylan. As a sixties singer songwriter and folk troubadour there were few that came close to either his songwriting or his charisma. His folk work is as moving today as it was at the time: a natural extension of the rebelliousness of Woodie Guthrie, updated for the beatnicks and pre-love generation. When he plugged in at Newport in 1965 it signified one of the most important changes in modern music: in some ways it was the birth of “rock” music as we know it today.
Sadly, that Dylan is dead. Long gone. He hasn’t been seen since the late 60s. And it seems very hard for people to admit that. I’m as much of a fan of the work of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon as anybody, but I get as excited at the prospect of any of them releasing a new album as I do by my next bowel movement. Listen to what I say here, and listen carefully: none of them are ever going to release another Blonde on Blonde, another Nebraska or another Graceland. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Accept it and move on, respect them for what they’ve done, and pay attention to some of the great new artists that we have today. You wouldn’t expect the world’s greatest fireman to continue fighting fires well into his seventies would you?
I also hate this idea that the great artists are somehow untouchable, that their worst offerings are somehow still worthy of praise. If a nobody like me offered up a turd like Christmas In The Heart as my first record, I would be justifiably laughed at and mocked, and possibly have my CD sold at supermarkets as that years “joke gift” (remember Paul Holmes’ album?). Which brings me (finally) to my point: Bob Dylan’s shit stinks just as much as anybody else’s.
Released in 2009 as what can only be assumed was a contractual obligation, Christmas In The Heart was considered an unusual move for the singer. Dylan was never a man with the smoothest voice, yet I’m definitely the type of person that rates character higher than perfect execution. I don’t give a shit if a singer is slightly out of tune, hell, it often improves a great song if it doesn’t sound like it was recorded by a computer. Sadly, this album almost made me eat my words, as Dylan stumbles through a collection of his favourite Christmas songs with the sort of charisma usually reserved for drunken relatives at Christmas parties.
Take for example “Do You Hear What I Hear”, which is an insanely half-arsed rendition of a Christmas classic, delivered with all the character and personality of the giant robot Santa on Queens Street in Auckland. Ever wanted to hear the songwriter behind “The Times They Are A Changin'” and “Like A Rolling Stone” perform a kitsch cover of “Little Drummer Boy”? Didn’t think so, but here you go anyway:
The aging Dylan growls his way through a selection of similar Christmas songs and traditional numbers in a manner that can only be described as “perfunctory”. The opener is a laughable version of “Here Comes Santa Clause”, comparable, but not better than the version performed by my local supermarket trolley boy. “Must Be Santa” is an unintentionally hilarious run through of an upbeat classic – perhaps this one should’ve been renamed “Must Be Record Contract Renewal Time”.
What is truly remarkable about Christmas In The Heart is that it actually got pretty decent reviews. Sure, we expect that sort of thing from the permanently out of date Rolling Stone: reviewed by the horrendously out of touch David Fricke (better known as the awful gobshite with the bum-chin that appears in every single American music doco) who gave it three stars and noted that “Dylan’s singing is often nimble and clear… The effect is like a Woodstock snowfall with the defiance of 1970’s Self Portrait: Another way of saying his roots are everywhere.” You missed a brown spot on your nose, dude. But a reasonably positive review from the ever-fickle Pitchfork Media is a bit more of a shock: “A nice assortment of hymns and popular carols… it’s his unhinged vocals that make Christmas in the Heart interesting”. Which is a bit like saying that Metallica‘s music is “interesting” because it’s performed by a troupe of shaved baboons. They gave the album 6.8 out of 10 too – that’s more than they’ve given some Wilco albums! It seems when you’ve been around the block as many times as Dylan has, your albums are given a certain amount of points just by having your name on them: it’s the musical equivalent of an award for participation. You win a prize just for turning up.
It’s not that there is anything truly ear-splittingly awful on Christmas In The Heart. It’s just that it’s so lazy, so boring and so laughable that you wonder how anyone could’ve thought it was a good idea to release it. See, I kind of resent the fact that big stars like these feel the need to release any old shit they throw together in the studio, and we, music fans, are just supposed to accept it and go “Oh that kooky Bob Dylan, he’s only gone and released a Christmas album featuring what can only be described as a cartoon version of his former self”. Or “Oh that Mick Jagger, he’s only gone and released a gut churningly bad disco album”. Or “Oh, that Paul McCartney, he’s only gone and released a non-stop torrent of unvaryingly shit post-Beatles music that sounds like it was written as nursery rhymes for deaf infants and is often so bad that it makes you question why you liked his contributions to his original band in the first place.”
That the proceeds of this album went to charity is about the only good thing that can be said about it. Also that it would make a great joke Christmas present for your music loving friends, or a great real present for your friends that don’t really like music very much (everyone has ’em). All I want for Christmas, however, is for Dylan to stop shitting on his legacy.
Find out where Bob Dylan – ‘Christmas In The Heart’ ranks in our Worst Albums Of All Time Chart.