Christmas In The Heart

Christmas In The Heart by Bob Dylan (Columbia)

Ringing Roger, December 2009

For me, one of the main curses of contemporary civilisation is piped music: everywhere you go, you have to listen to someone else’s – or some corporation’s – choice of noise. I say ‘noise’ because in my experience it’s rarely anything one actually likes. But then again, even if they were playing Vaughan Williams or Elgar, Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan, one surely has the right to choose when and where to listen to them? And how would one feel about one’s favourite music being reduced to ‘muzac’, anyway? I’m grateful for the fact that one doesn’t usually hear any of the above when out and about. It would be disconcerting to have Dylan intoning the famous line from ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ – ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’ – while groping for a bag of frozen organic peas.

At about this time of year the noise just gets worse. I wonder if anyone has monitored the increase in violence in supermarkets occasioned by the remorseless repetition of Slade singing ‘So here it is, merry Christmas / Everybody’s having fun’? (It’s the check-out staff I feel sorry for; customers can beat a hasty exit.) Still, at least we don’t get Dylan’s greatest hits reduced to the same level and mixed in with the same cacophony… But when I purchased his new album, Christmas In The Heart, and noted that it included such popular gems as ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, along with such traditional hymns as ‘Oh Come All You Faithful’ and ‘The First Noel’, I had the worrying suspicion that his intention was to sell the rights to some purveyor of piped music, and we’d be hearing him in Morrisons before the year was out. The jolly, upbeat children’s song ‘Must Be Santa’ would become the soundtrack from Hell.

Dylan, of course, has a large and loyal body of admirers. They have either enjoyed or endured his frequent changes of persona: the Woody Guthrie imitator, the ‘hip’ icon of the sixties counterculture, the ultra-conventional country music artist, the religious zealot denouncing ‘rock’n’roll addicts’, and so forth. But would ‘Bob the Christmas muzac man’ be the last straw?

Having heard all the tracks on the album, I can say that I doubt that this will happen. True, the backing singers make a sound that the cynical might describe as saccharine. True, before Bob joins in, one might think one was listening to The Perry Como Show. But of course, it’s precisely when Bob does join in that one realises that it is (thank God) business as usual. That weary, rasping voice is inimitable — paradoxically, both disconcerting and reassuring. We rely on him to disturb us. Dylan is to my mind the greatest religious songwriter of the present era: right back to his early ‘protest’ phase (‘I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide / Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side’), right through his ‘born-again’ period (‘I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand’), up to his sombre meditations on mortality of recent years (‘I don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer / It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’). By reinterpreting standard Christmas songs, without being either subversive or, worse still, ‘ironic’ (the usual excuse for bad taste these days), he makes us ask what we really think the Christian feast is all about. Listen to this in good faith … but please don’t forget to subscribe to ‘Pipedown’, the campaign against muzac: !!!


Laurence Coupe