CD Review: Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart

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This is an especially confusing prelude to the first song, which happens to be “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The instrumentation and arrangement is pure, classic Christmas all the way. Dylan’s croaky voice sits atop the jaunty tune as if it's the only one that should ever touch the song. But by the second track, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” it's clear the album will not be free of clunkers. “Winter Wonderland” fares much better as he delivers more fun Christmas mirth to the expert backing of a completely committed band and chorus singers. The fourth song is another struggle. And so it goes, with the uptempo songs generally benefiting more from the Dylan treatment than the slower, more vocally demanding numbers.

Another big highlight arrives in the form of “Must Be Santa” -- a superfast, speed-polka romp thorough the old chestnut. Then it’s back down to foggy, froggy doldrums with “Silver Bells.” The slower tunes are more predictably 21st Century Dylan while the faster ones go places no one could have quite dreamed of. Ever heard of “Christmas Island”? Neither had I. This one travels to the South Pacific and celebrates both coconut trees and Christmas stockings. The campy backing singers are pure, modern Dylan aesthetic -- which means by way of 1940 -- and are a flavor unheard on any previous Bob Dylan album.

I suppose you could take this thing as a whole, if you are looking for quantity in the lead-up to the big holiday. Me, I’ll probably hit the skip button a few times in between sips of eggnog. About four of these will surely end up on my ipod Xmas playlist.


At this point in time, nothing that Bob Dylan does should surprise anyone. His satellite radio program Theme Time Radio Hour pretty much laid all his cards on the table and pegged him once and for all as a mischievous kidder with a wit drier than any Sunday in the Bible Belt. Back in 1966, it was irresistible to the international press to try to pin him down into a shape that they could get a grip on. But by now (and thanks in large part to him), no one seems to care much about what motivates a pop star anymore. They do what they do and we like it or we don’t.

But when you see the cover of Christmas in the Heart (Sony), with its apparently sincere wintry scene of a couple enjoying a sprightly two-horse sleigh ride, a certain level of WTF creeps into your psyche, no matter how much you want to believe in Santa. You know that, yes, on one level Bob Dylan would not make a 15-song Christmas record as a complete joke, yet you also know that he would not do it completely seriously either. And when you open the jewel case you see that you are correct. Because right there, Bettie Page is perched in an immodest Christmas get-up, smiling at you like she wants to open your presents. Christmas in the Pants is more like it.

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