As far as Christmas albums are concerned (and I’m certainly no expert, I can assure you), names such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and of course Michael Bublé spring to mind. But Bob Dylan! The man who wrote some of the most evocative and inspiring protest songs of the 20th Century, back in 2009, for reasons known only to himself had decided to go all sentimental on us and deliver what has to be the most bizarre release of his entire oeuvre, which for a while now has remained at the back of the queue of my Dylan collection; because honestly, Christmas compilations have never really been my idea of a good night in (not even as a child). However now that we’re approaching ‘the big day’ itself, I thought it time I hazard a few brain cells and get into the whole festive cheer, and with Robert Zimmerman holding Rudolph’s reigns (he doesn’t actually appear on the cover by the way), I have convinced myself to finally give it a go.
On the sleigh bells dominated opener “Here Comes Santa Claus” I don’t know whether to laugh or push the fast forward button. Is it a matter of him simply taking the piss, or some deep heartfelt connection to the song itself? Similarly “Do You Hear What I Hear”, where Dylan’s gruff and world-weary vocals serve as a contrast to how the tune must have been originally recorded all those many years ago when he heard it as a boy. On both “Winter Wonderland” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” he sounds more like some alcoholic pre-hanging junkie looking for redemption on 34th Street. His delivery of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is so pneumatic that I’d be surprised if he’d be coming home at all. His arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy” remains faithful to the original, however Bob ain’t no Bing. “The Christmas Blues” is probably about the best thing here, with its late night bar room atmosphere, reminiscent of Tom Waits (now there’s an idea, a Tom Waits Christmas album. That I’d like to hear). Dylan’s rendition of “O’ Come All Ye Faithful” has to be heard to be believed, and it isn’t due to the quality of his performance, I promise you.
Dylan’s vocal decrepitude continues with “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas”, followed by an extremely upbeat “Must Be Santa”, which is both annoying as well as comedic, thanks to the lyrics. He takes us down to Nashville with a melancholy “Silver Bells”, while “The First Noel” is just plain ridiculous. Is it me, or does Bob come across as some sleazy septuagenarian attempting to co-opt a woman more than a third his age into spending a night with him on “Christmas Island”?
We conclude with the dreamy and nostalgic “The Christmas Song”, and a positively phlegmatic interpretation of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, as if all those cigarettes and joints Dylan smoked for over forty years had by then eventually caught up with him.
As corny as this music is, it’s to Dylan’s credit that all proceeds are to be bequeathed in perpetuity to various charities, a very noble gesture indeed, even if Saint Bob doesn’t really need the money anyway (if he truly wanted to end world hunger, maybe he ought to donate some of the profits from Blonde On Blonde instead). Christmas in the Heart remains a quirky if almost surrealistic experience by one of post-war America’s most enigmatic and influential songwriters. Mind you, I can’t see myself listening to it again anytime soon.