/ 18 December 2009

Singing inside the box

In their way the sudden peal of sleigh bells opening Bob Dylan’s 2009 Christmas in the Heart album are as portentous, as shocking, as the snare drum that cracked open 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited.

Greil Marcus’s excellent book, Like a Rolling Stone, quotes Bruce Springsteen’s description of first hearing that opening track: “On came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.”

For Marcus, the sound “fixed a moment when all those caught up in modern music found themselves engaged in a running battle for a prize no one bothered to name: the greatest record ever made”.

The subsequent history of that song is well documented: Dylan booed by purist folkies for going electric, the six-minute single cut in half to fit the demands of commercial radio and vinyl pressing and the eventual triumph of art over expectations.

Skip forward and a similar, albeit much smaller, rift is observable among Dylan fans. The trite, muzak-like sleigh bells of Here Comes Santa Claus signal the opening of a fight.

In one corner, representing folkies for the 21st century, are those who think Christmas in the Heart is a sellout, a sad case of a tired genius belittling himself by covering Christmas carols.

In the other corner are people like me, who’ll tell you that this is a marvellous album, surreal, traditional, fun and very Dylan. And it’s a truism — everything Bob touches turns into Dylan.

So when you hear his voice of “sandpaper and glue” singing the revised children’s lyrics to Winter Wonderland (he also includes the original Parson Brown lyric), the song can’t help but take on a new meaning.

Rather than a bridge about petty playground squabbles, we get, well, a bridge about petty playground squabbles. Just in a different playground.

“We can build a snowman, and pretend he’s a circus clown, We’ll have lots of fun with Mister Snowman, until the other kids all knock him down,” sing Dylan and his choir.

One can’t resist reading this as an allegory for the way Dylan has continually recreated himself musically and for the constant battle he’s waged with the expectations of his fans.

With albums such as Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan has already laid claim to that prize nobody apparently bothered to name at the time, but now trot out in myriad forms every year: the greatest album ever made.

It’s a nonsense contest, of course, a running battle that can never end.

And it’s a battle that Christmas in the Heart isn’t part of. This is, when all’s sung and done, an album of Christmas favourites.

They might have a resonance outside of their generic and cultural restrictions, but listened to on their merits, they’re beautifully constructed and beautifully Dylan.

Oh, and for the record, so to speak: over the Christmas period Dylan’s immediate donations from the Christmas in the Heart proceeds will provide 500 000 meals to school children in the developing world, 15 000 meals to homeless people in the United Kingdom and more than four million meals to 1,4-million families in the United States.

That shouldn’t affect how we judge the music, but it should make us a little more willing to sing along.