Ever wonder what it might be like if Bob Dylan showed up at your house for the holidays, everyone got a little loaded on Christmas cheer (and eggnog), and Dylan was coaxed into leading a rousing round of carols? Neither have I. But, ready or not, Santa Claus isn’t the only one coming into our homes this Christmas. Bob Dylan is barreling down that chimney right behind him with Christmas in the Heart, a 15-track collection of both traditional and popular Christmas songs.
Yuletide cheer isn’t the only thing fueling Dylan on Christmas in the Heart. Actually, the real reason behind this unlikely release speaks to an aspect of human nature that often shines brightest during the holiday season: good will toward men. Dylan has teamed up with three charities — Feeding America, Crisis UK, and World Food Programme — dedicated to feeding the hungry in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the developing world. All of Dylan’s present and future royalties from Christmas in the Heart will be donated to these organizations.
Knowing the charitable impetus for this record doesn’t make it any less of a curiosity. When Columbia Records first leaked the news that Dylan was making a Christmas album, there was widespread speculation regarding what the album would sound like. Would it be similar to the legendary singer-songwriter’s recent output? Would Dylan rework and reinvent these holiday classics as he does with his own catalog on his Never-Ending Tour? In short, not at all. This is not a record of Dylan reinventing or “Bobifying” our favorite Christmas songs. They are straightforward renditions, which are easily recognizable to kids from 1 to 92. Think of the old Christmas records your grandparents used to play, complete with sleigh bells and sugarcoated backing vocals. Now, substitute Bing Crosby or Perry Como’s croon with Dylan’s ragged croak. If you can imagine that combination, you have Christmas in the Heart in a chestnut shell.
There is actually a lot of fun to be had with this album once listeners get beyond the oddity of Bob Dylan singing Christmas songs. A rollicking version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” jumpstarts the record in fine holiday fashion. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Christmas Song” (the one with chestnuts roasting on an open fire) suit Dylan and find him in fine voice, tinged with a brand of sweetness only he can conjure. More offbeat tracks include the tropical “Christmas Island” and a deranged polka version of “Must Be Santa”, which has Dylan leading a rapid-fire call-and-response that is guaranteed to make you smile and want to join in.
Some of the songs Dylan covers seem right up his alley. “Winter Wonderland” isn’t too far removed from some of the meandering songs on Love and Theft, and it’s difficult to resist Dylan’s playful interjections throughout. “We’ll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman,” sing female backing singers, to which Dylan heartily replies, “Until the other kids all knock him down!” “Christmas Blues” sounds like it would fit comfortably beside “My Wife’s Hometown” on the recent Together Through Life. ”I’ve done my window shopping/There’s not a store I’ve missed/But what’s the use of stopping/When there’s no one on your list?/You’ll know the way I’m feeling/When you love and you lose/I guess I’ve got the Christmas blues.”
For the most part, Dylan doesn’t stray from his comfort zone vocally. He does venture out on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, and even with some highly complimentary backing tracks, it’s clear that Dylan just can’t deliver a traditional version of this song. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a song that Dylan really could have knocked out of the park, but he just can’t quite overcome the gruffness of his voice like he does on the album’s better tracks.
If you’re expecting the next great work of Dylan’s late period, you won’t find it here. However, if you engage Christmas in the Heart in the charitable and playful spirit in which it is intended, you’ll find it an enjoyable novelty that may even grow on you.
And, when you think about it, I suppose a Christmas album isn’t all that shocking of a move for Dylan. After all, “O’ Come All Ye Faithful” is just another way of saying, “Come gather ‘round people,” isn’t it?