Bob Dylan has been making records for 48 years, and deeply disappointing people for the last 44 of them. “Judas!” some disenchantee legendarily screamed during a Manchester concert in 1966—a peanut-gallery pissant who dimly knew that Dylan had traded in Pete Seeger purism for rock voltage the year before but showed up to register his protest anyway. The heckling has hardly ceased since. The next eruption was when he stopped going electric, sort of, with 1967’s John Wesley Harding. Then came 1970’s Self Portrait, alleged by the faithful (or various factions thereof) to be an act of self-sabotage. And the full-on embrace of female backing vocals and guy-liner in the late seventies … the Evangelical era, replete with walkouts when he refused to play his secular oldies live … the subsequent years when he played all his hits live, but audiences didn’t realize it because he’d rendered them unrecognizable … an acting career with choices as hard to comprehend as 1986’s Hard to Handle … the ad-licensing years … the Will.I.Am “Forever Young” remix.
In a career measured in both greatness and WTF moments, only mysterious, magisterial Teflon Bob could come out of it all as revered as ever. History would advise, then, against presupposing that Dylan might finally meet his Waterloo at the North Pole. But you’ll come across no shortage of “last straw” comments concerning his 34th studio album, Christmas in the Heart. When I suggested to one aggrieved friend that maybe Dylan had the right to a lark, it was as if I’d told a Baptist it was high time Billy Graham got to enjoy a threesome. “You don’t understand,” the pal shot back at me, plaintively. “When Another Side of Bob Dylan came out, it changed my life, for good.” What to do when your personal Jesus turns out to be Iscariot in a cardigan, betraying you with a kiss under the mistletoe?
Well … laugh, maybe? Although the idea of a Dylan Christmas album never struck me as inherently ridiculous, when it was first announced, I joined in the fun. What songs might he record? “Positively 34th Street”? “Don’t Check Your List Twice, It’s All Right”? Would the album be called Blitzen on Blitzen? Elf Portrait? ’Nog on the Tracks? The Photoshoppers of the world got busy grafting Santa hats onto old LP-jacket photos, as if they could take the piss out of Dylan any more than he could take it out of himself. But it struck me that Dylan really had the potential to make one of the cooler Christmas albums ever. On his satellite-radio show, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” he’d done a two-hour Christmas special, trotting out obscure sides by Lead Belly, Johnny Paycheck, and Celia Cruz. Surely his own album would follow that hepcat path.
Instead, it follows Mitch Miller’s bouncing ball right down Santa Claus Lane. Filled largely with the most familiar carols, Christmas in the Heart is a full-on embrace of the old, not-so-weird America, a tribute to the kind of mass-market holiday records that his own Jewish family might have picked up in suburban Minnesota in the fifties, as a near freebie at the gas station.
Cue up the first track, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and the first thing you’ll notice, other than a certain faithfulness to Gene Autry’s mild version of Western swing, is that Dylan’s trading off lines with a slick male chorus right off a Ray Conniff LP. For pure distaff sweetness, he also enlists the L.A. retro duo the Ditty Bops, whose prominent parts on several tracks manage to recall the Christmas recordings of both the Andrews Sisters and the Roches.
Roughly half the album finds Dylan in his vocal comfort range, including a surprisingly smooth “Little Drummer Boy,” a wonderful reprise of the World War II soldiers’ ditty “Christmas Island,” and the excellent polka “Must Be Santa,” with a heart-stoppingly frantic arrangement openly borrowed from the group Brave Combo. It’s when he gets to the hymns that things get … interesting. His recordings of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and a half-Latin “O Come, All Ye Faithful” are sung in a voice so ravaged, they could double as antismoking PSAs.
The hymnody here raises certain questions. Wasn’t Dylan supposed to have converted back to Judaism? Maybe, but he has also continued to sing folk spirituals like “I Am the Man, Thomas” on tour; on the evidence of his last few albums, he’s most likely just your garden-variety ecumenical Bible-as-literature liberal Christian-Jewish agnostic-mystic with a comically morbid streak. Anyway, perhaps we shouldn’t look for spiritual clues in lyrics like Autry’s “Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / ’Cause Santa Claus comes tonight,” a conflation of sacred and spiritual magic that has warped kids’ religious sensibilities for decades. In Christmas in the Heart, Dylan’s being Bing again, not born-again.