When Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart came out a few months ago, most critics obsessed over the ironic possibilities of a Bob Dylan Christmas album, especially one called Christmas in the Heart, especially one with that cover. Had these critics forgotten that Dylan has always held his cards tight to his chest? That he’s been producing his albums for years now under the kinda-Christmasy pseudonym Jack Frost? That he only does what he really wants to do? For many of these critics, the fact that all proceeds of the album go to Feeding America functioned almost as an excuse for (more) weird behavior from Dylan. All one has to do, of course, is simply listen to the music to find that Christmas in the Heart is a minor masterpiece in the Christmas music genre and a wonderful, strange fit in the Dylan canon.
Dylan tackles fifteen carols and classics in a consistent, old-timey style evocative of Les Paul and Mary Ford and other hybrid Country & Western of the immediate post-WWII era. Dylan’s production is warm and simple, showcasing the talent of his players and backup singers. Opener “Here Comes Santa Claus” sets a lively pace that slows down over the course of the album’s first side, through a lush “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to a version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that wrangles just the right mix of bitter and sweet. Dylan’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” is downright ethereal. The album picks up again with its only barnburner, a fired-up version of Lawrence Welk’s polka, “Must Be Christmas.” Do yourself a favor and enrich your life by watching the marvelous video (seriously watch it, if for nothing else than for Dylan’s surreal wig):
The energy and strange, chaotic madness of “Must Be Christmas” makes for the lively climax of the album, and the video clearly represents Dylan’s vision of Christmas as carnival. Not that it’s all ritual madness, of course. The commercial/spiritual paradox of Christmas comes out in the end, as the record winds down with the secular melancholy of “The Christmas Song” followed by the stirring hymn “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.” If there’s any concern that Dylan is somehow not entirely earnest in his Christmas music–or too earnest in his irony, perhaps–one simply has to listen to the spirit in his gravelly, aging voice. Christmas in the Heart may be ironic, but that shouldn’t diminish its pleasures at all: it’s a self-conscious, loving irony, far from sneering, and certainly not a trick on the listener. It’s a gift of music, really (as corny as that sounds), one that asks the reader to laugh along with it, but also to feel genuine sentiment in the beauty here. Highly recommended–especially on 180 gram vinyl (the vinyl addition includes the album on CD and a 7″ single of “Must Be Christmas” and a B-side of Bob reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with backing music by John Fahey).