Sleigh Lady Sleigh

Bob Dylan's Christmas album is probably a (good) joke

"Does anybody recognise this painting? Any theories as to what it means?" Rolling Stone's Andy Greene is looking at a picture of a middle-aged couple on a sleigh. It's snowy and old-fashioned, like a church basement greeting card priced at 25p. Perhaps it's a passive-aggressive warning to climate-change deniers of the catastrophic consequences of polluting the world: ice caps will melt, global temperatures will rise, and good ol' fashioned scenes like this will cease to be. Or maybe it signifies the post-apocalyptic winter that awaits us all, should war ever go nuclear. My "theory", though, is that this "painting" -- the cover image of Bob Dylan's forthcoming charity album, Christmas in the Heart -- just means "Christmas".

The bookies at Ladbrokes reckon that Dylan has a 25/1 chance of winning this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. With Grammies, an Oscar and even an honorary Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Zimmy (as he suggested we call him in "Gotta Serve Somebody") is one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. And with good reason, too, in my book. When he's on form, he writes lines like: "It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey,/A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet." His output may be inconsistent, but his influence on culture is undeniable, with even the Beatles placing him on a pedestal at the height of their success.

Some people however take him too seriously. A few days ago (23 September), the second annual Uncut Music Award announced its longlist of the year's best albums. It's a predictable bunch -- new records by Wilco, Arctic Monkeys and Smog's Bill Callahan -- but perhaps the most obvious inclusion of all was Dylan's Together Through Life, which received a five-star review at the time of its release. The second collaboration between Dylan and the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter (the first was 1988's dubious Down in the Groove), it's a solid set that sits comfortably among the roots-revival records Dylan has been knocking out since 1992's Good As I Been to You. Songs like the Tex-Mex ballad "This Dream of You" and the optimistic "I Feel a Change Comin' On" are some of his best in recent years. But five stars? Together Through Life is the sound of Dylan in the rec room, letting his frizzy hair down. Over half the album -- knocked out loaded, partly at the request of the film-maker Olivier Dahan for use on a soundtrack -- is little more than filler, enjoyable though it is.

This year, CUP published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. With the annual calls for the Nobel Prize to be awarded to Dylan, the tome's publication marked yet another attempt by learned Bob fans to give their hero some kind of high-culture legitimacy, above and beyond the respect he already has as a rock star.

But I'm curious how future academics will fit Christmas in the Heart into their critical discourse. The album, all profits of which will go to the World Food Programme, is an old-timey collection of festive songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Beyond the curious fact that Dylan has managed to announce a record featuring Jesus in every song without the critics batting an eyelid (as they did during his notorious, though underrated, gospel period), it's a straightforward feast of harmony vocals and lush, brassy arrangements. From the audio samples I've heard, it sounds like a glorious mess, though many fans are evidently appalled. On the Expecting Rain web forum, Bennyboy describes it as "pure evil in sound form". Nehemiah thinks it's "hilariously awful", asking: "How can this not be a joke?" Isa, meanwhile, is more despondent: "God, now I feel the shame."

I think Nehemiah has the right attitude. I'll probably enjoy the album, but then again, I like Self Portrait, Shot of Love and even Dylan, often described as his career nadir. Even in Dylan's best songs, it's not hard to find a few bad lines, and this lack of consistency is partly what has kept him so interesting over many decades. Some of his albums are great, others are terrible, but even his worst recordings contain flashes of brilliance. So how does the committed fan cope with such ups and downs? By asking, in the truly bad times, "How can this not be a joke?" At least then you get to laugh along.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories