'Christmas in the Heart' (Columbia) -- 4 STARS
Writer David Hajdu’s chronicle of the folk generation, “Positively Fourth Street” tells the story of a time back in the early ’60s—before the electric controversy, the motorcycle accident, and all the other events that would eventually turn him into legend—when a young Bob Dylan hung out at London’s Troubadour Club, heckling an Israeli woman’s performance. “Now there’s something you don’t see every day—a Jewish folk singer,” he joked with his Gentile buddies just before crashing the musician’s set (casually concealing the fact that he himself was just such an oddity). With this potent blend of self-deprecation and arrogance, Dylan has managed to keep us laughing at his jokes without quite grasping the crux of the punchline for decades, making his latest musical endeavor, an album of holiday standards entitled “Christmas in the Heart,” just as puzzling as it is entertaining. Nostalgic descriptions, like on “Silver Bells,” of how Christmas “shoppers rush home with their treasures” may seem a bit incongruous coming from the same singer who penned a batch of angry lyrics railing against the system. Luckily, Dylan hasn’t suddenly decided to sell out for some quick Christmas cash—sales from the album will go towards feeding families in need, both stateside and abroad.
Often lifting stray lyrics and imagery from obscure folk songs, the bulk of Dylan’s work thus far has played out like a cryptic cut-and-paste ode to Americana, complete with rowdy railroad men, brassy broads, dirt roads, and plenty of cigarette smoke. Atypically relinquishing song-writing duties on “Christmas in the Heart,” Dylan refrains from dramatically reworking the classics, instead blending his unique brand of gravelly gravitas with the schmaltzy sound of sleigh bells to surprisingly pleasant effect. Hilariously backed by a perfectly earnest bunch of session singers, Dylan’s rough-hewn voice crackles over their happy harmonizing like an old uncle with a bit too much bourbon in him. Whether he’s gleefully awaiting Saint Nick’s arrival in “Here Comes Santa Claus” or politely growling an invitation to join him in a “Winter Wonderland,” Dylan’s amusement is audible.
Dylan’s past attempts at getting his sense of humor down on vinyl have provoked the ire of many a critic—most notably 1970’s confusingly quirky “Self-Portrait.” But if “Christmas in the Heart” hinges on a joke, this one is much more inclusive. When Dylan belts out a raspy proclamation of Christ’s birth, it’s simultaneously entertaining and endearing, and his heartfelt delivery is practically contagious. Dylan hasn’t exactly mastered Burl Ives, but to be fair, even his Woody Guthrie impression was always a creative interpretation at best.
Though Dylan tends to stay faithful to the original versions of the album’s 15 holiday tunes, “Must Be Santa,” the standout track, receives the full Dylan treatment. Whipping the song up into a foot-stomping, speedy accordion romp, the reindeer roll call gets cheekily politicized, with “Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon” and “Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton” joining the ranks of Santa’s better-known little helpers, Dasher, Prancer, and Vixen. Heading down under on “Christmas Island,” he pays tribute to both Jimmy Buffett and the Andrews’ Sisters renditions of the twangy ditty, with female singers cooing their answer to Dylan’s request to “stay up late like the islanders do.”
At one point on “Christmas in the Heart,” Dylan takes on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” posing the question repeatedly as he recounts the story of the nativity in song. Aside from the religious significance of the query, the song also serves as an apt metaphor for the album itself. In the past, Bob Dylan has often taken issue with critics’ and fans’ attempts to weed out the hidden meanings within his extensive catalog of songs, attempting to hear what isn’t there. “Christmas in the Heart,” with few original lyrical or arrangement contributions to Dylan’s credit, is an ideal album to take at face value. With chuckle-inducing songs, jovial back-up singers, and heartwarming sound effects, Dylan’s ruggedly whimsical compilation achieves just the right amount of warmth and fuzziness that a Christmas album should—nothing more and nothing less.
—Staff writer Roxanne J. Fequiere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.