The question uppermost on everyone’s mind has now been answered: What the heck would a Bob Dylan Christmas album even sound like? Although the actual album won’t be released until October 13th, a full tracklist, along with thirty-second audio samples, has now been revealed on Amazon UK. Listen for yourself, if you dare. [Or try this YouTube link if the Amazon samples are no longer there.]The most immediate thing one notices is that Bob Dylan has opted to go the most traditional route he could have chosen. The song selection includes everything from “O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)” (and yes, he does the Latin too) to “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The backing singers conjure up ghosts of the Andrews Sisters and those classic Christmas records from the likes of Bing Crosby in the ’thirties and ’forties. It’s unfair to make any final judgment based on these low-fidelity snippets, but clearly the album is going to be quite something. Dylan’s voice is not the “Nashville Skyline” croon that might have blended unobstrusively with these songs, but seems to be about as rough as it’s ever sounded on record. It strikes me that he may even be playing up the broken quality of his voice (if such a thing could possibly be necessary at the age of 68) in order to add to that special kind of poignancy that the more melancholy Christmas tunes evoke. On the Santa songs, Dylan seems to be on the verge of laughing a lot of the time, and the feeling is contagious.
The album is arousing controversy among some fans of Dylan (d’ya think?). Instant reaction to the clips among those who comment in online forums found many being dismissive and even nasty. But Bob’s no stranger to that kind of thing, and he’s never let heckling deter him from doing just what he’s always wanted to do.
Then there’s the religious question. Bob Dylan is singing not just the more secular Christmas classics here, obviously, but also some of the best-loved Christmas hymns. It will stir some old arguments about whether he’s a practicing Jew or a Christian. As someone who has attended closely to themes of faith in his music for a long time, I happen to believe (for reasons far too numerous to explore in this post) that he’s long held a happy accomodation in his own heart of both his Jewish and Christian identities, and that he just doesn’t much care if other people understand that or not.
All of Bob Dylan’s own royalties from this album are being promised to charities that provide food to the needy. In the U.S., he has reportedly already committed to donating the value of four million meals, this year, to a charity organization named “Feeding America.” It remains to be seen how well the album will actually sell, of-course. Perhaps, as at other points during his nearly-fifty-year-old career when he’s caused some shock, the listeners who reject his new move will be compensated for by other listeners who will embrace it, and the whole crazy myth, legend and even-more-unlikely reality of Bob Dylan’s contribution to American culture will just become that much more enormous.