Release Date: Oct 13, 2009
Record label: Sony
There used to be a civilised convention among reviewers – perhaps there still is, in some sectors of the arts – that performances given for the benefit of charity were exempt from the normal process of criticism. They could be reported, and admired when appropriate, but not dissected or evaluated in the usual way. Since the proceeds from the sales of Bob Dylan's Christmas album will be devoted to feeding homeless people in every territory in which it is released, the critic is clearly not entitled to consider beginning his review with the celebrated single-line exclamation employed by Greil Marcus to open his Rolling Stone review of Dylan's Self Portrait back in 1970: "What is this shit?" A similar reaction might be the normal, unthinking reponse to the news that the author of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll has chosen to offer for public enjoyment his versions of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles/O Come, All Ye Faithful, its first verse sung in Latin, with characteristic inflections: "Ven-EE-tay ador-ay-MOOSE.
That creepy guy from the Victoria’s Secret commercial has a Christmas present for you With visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads, record companies greet the holiday season with a stocking stuffed with cheery, cheesy Christmas music that rehashes the same old chestnuts with the same old sense of obligation. Bob Dylan is the last person you’d expect to jump Santa’s bandwagon, what with his old-coot voice and ornery disposition, but here he comes with his first holiday album. Musically, it’s wonderfully bad; conceptually, it’s just wonderful.
It opens with sleigh bells and a jaunty backing choir, and we’re off into a fully realized Norman Rockwell painting, complete with roaring fireplace, children in stocking feet, and the jolly old grandpa around whom they’ve gathered. The grandpa is Bob Dylan, and yes, Bob Dylan is jolly. Holly jolly, even. From the Currier & Ives-esque cover illustration to the Andrews sisters soundalikes singing backup, Dylan’s charity album Christmas in the Heart is a full-on fruitcake.
When Bob Dylan-- the patron saint of sneering, disaffected poets-- announced he was releasing a collection of classic Christmas songs for charity, smirkers got smirkier: What, after all, is more absurd than a beloved iconoclast embracing the schmaltziest, most achingly commercial genre of all? It sounded insane. And it is insane, sort of. The goal of Christmas in the Heart (all domestic proceeds go to Feeding America, one of the nation's leading hunger-relief nonprofits) is hardly reinvention.
After the initial shock fades, the existence of Christmas in the Heart seems perhaps inevitable. After all, the thing Bob Dylan loves most of all are songs that are handed down from generation to generation, songs that are part of the American fabric, songs so common they never seem to have been written. These are the songs Dylan chooses to sing on Christmas in the Heart, a cheerfully old-fashioned holiday album from its Norman Rockwell-esque cover to its joyous backing vocals.
After 47 years and 33 studio albums, Bob Dylan has made a Christmas LP. "Thank goodness," I hear you cry: "at last he is fulfilling the promise of his entire career." Avid Dylanologists have been predicting this moment for decades, cleverly picking up the all the little clues dotted across his output. First there’s that Jack Frost pseudonym he’s been producing his records under for the past decade.
Three years ago, Under the Radar reviewed a Christmas album by hair metal goofs Twisted Sister, and with all due respect to Bob Dylan, who is perhaps the best songwriter of all time, Christmas In The Heart is a similar curiosity. Aside from the obvious point that it is strange hearing Dylan, née Robert Zimmerman, singing Christmas songs, it is often just awkward to listen to the elder's scraggly croak making its way through commonly known carols such as "Winter Wonderland," "Little Drummer Boy," "Silver Bells," and "The First Noel. " "Do You Hear What I Hear" is a particularly throat-scratching example of the cognitive dissonance one experiences by hearing Dylan sing these songs.