Bob Dylan Christmas in the Heart

[Columbia; 2009]

Styles: Laryngitis-stricken carolers, tavern Christmas hymnals, pinecone polka
Others: Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Gene Autry

It's too soon to speak of dementia or Alzheimer’s when speaking of Bob Dylan. He’s not yet Grandpa in the backseat of your car, collecting the good luck change from the floor mats and stuffing them into his pockets. But Dylan’s bizarre behavior persists. He’s been on a tear lately — spouting Zen-like wisdom in Cadillac commercials, allowing a porta-potty on his property to fall into neglect, and being accosted by police officers in Long Branch, New Jersey for vagrancy. There are also the pesky plagiarism claims concerning Chronicles, Volume 1. Apparently, entire passages have been lifted from Time magazine (among other sources). Dylan ne’er-do-wrong obsessives assert it’s another example of the songsmith’s textual digging — an excavation on par with the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine. Dylan rises from the pit, clutching dirt and iron ore.

Aside from the questions regarding the underlying motives to Dylan’s behavior, we have to deal with the religion question. Let’s review: Dylan was raised a Jew. He became a born-again Christian as the 70s turned to the 80s, betraying his Jewish roots (“Judas!”). In the 90s, he was photographed at the Wailing Wall wearing a yarmulke, prayer shawl, and phylacteries. There is no denying the man has an enigmatic, even kabbalistic interest in religion. He straddles the line between spiritual and secular as earnestly as he honors the Texas-Mexico border.

On Christmas in the Heart, however, it’s not the heat, but the bitter cold, the kind you feel in northern Minnesnowta. These are traditional numbers, aged but not antiquated. In keeping with releases like Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the album features Dylan exorcising the musical spirits of the land. Some will rank it among other gimcrack releases, like Dylan & the Dead. Still others will categorize it as an oddity, like Self Portrait. It’s all and none of these. These songs are Dylan’s latest exploits, but they're deathly sincere (and jolly), as serious and kitschy as Theme Time Radio Hour. It’s the music that introduces old Disney films, an album as dense and allusive as his other recent outings.

But where song selection might limit him in achieving depths only a Delian diver could reach, he compensates in the cover art. The front cover may be a depiction of a Russian folktale, while the back is an almost comic strip illustration of the journeying magi, crossing the desert from the east, following the Star of Bethlehem — gold, frankincense, and myrrh likely in tow. Bettie Page is on the inside cover, decked out in Mrs. Claus lingerie. And a black-and-white photograph of an S.A.D.-inflicted (or Xmas Depression or the winter blues or “The Christmas Blues”) jazz quartet in sagging Santa costumes. Nothing is accidental.

If you’ve ever yearned to hear Dylan sing “ring-a-ling,” “ho-ho,” “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum,” “aloha,” or “amen,” here is your opportunity. If you’ve ever desired to hear Dylan speak Latin or shout out his own producer alter-ego as he sings “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” here you have it. His voice is his voice: damaged. It’s the voice of Bing in a smoky bordello, a crooner in a crack house. His voice is this: you are caressing a polished piece of wood (a mantle with stockings hung?), when suddenly your palm is punctured by a crack in the varnish — a splinter.

Oddly enough, Christmas in the Heart may be Dylan’s most socio-political album in decades. Dylan has long been an inactive activist — a static revolutionary. The impetus for the album is unclear, but the domestic hunger-fighting charity, Feeding America, might have inspired the album after requesting help from Dylan. Dylan spouts statistics now, alerting us to the startling and unacceptable numbers of starving children in our country (only in the press release, though, not in any songs). All present and future U.S. royalties from the album will be donated to the starving and hungry. Bob Dylan, philanthropist.

But, like my parenthetical attempt at a holiday play-on-words earlier, Christmas in the Heart doesn’t flaunt its Christmas commerciality. It's not an album that will only come out with the manger, garland, and tinsel. In fact, the album’s release arrives even prior to Halloween, our modern marker for the start of Christmas materialism and advertising. Indeed, the album isn’t exclusively a Christmas album; it is an artifact of Americana.

1. Here Comes Santa Claus
2. Do You Hear What I Hear?
3. Winter Wonderland
4. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
5. I’ll Be Home for Christmas
6. Little Drummer Boy
7. The Christmas Blues
8. O’ Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)
9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
10. Must Be Santa
11. Silver Bells
12. The First Noel
13. Christmas Island
14. The Christmas Song
15. O’ Little Town of Bethlehem

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