Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart (Columbia) When I first heard that Bob Dylan was releasing a Christmas album, I immediately began to wonder what form it might take. This spawned a series of possible carols, using take-offs of Dylan song titles: “Like a Jolly Elf,” “Just Like a Reindeer,” “A Big Sleigh’s a-Gonna Call,” “Sleddin’ in the Wind,” and, my favorite, “Stuck Inside of Macy’s in the Santa Suit Again” (I even went so far as to compose lyrics for that last one, in case Bob might be having trouble).
Of course, Dylan’s Christmas album, like anyone’s Christmas album, would not be comprised of new compositions, but would trot out old familar chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and so forth. The question really was: would they be done in some bluesy or folky style familiar to Dylan’s listeners, or would he take some other tact, full of Christmas kitsch, with choirs or orchestras, or even a brass band?
The answer is: a bit of Dylan’s recently signature style -- involving his usual studio musicians -- is discernible in some of the songs, sorta: “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is as scruffy as that song could ever be imagined, though it has some nice guitar licks and he does manage to get fairly high and clear at the close; “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” -- well, forget Dino’s sentimental delivery -- Dylan sounds like a guy permanently ostracized by his clean-living relatives at Christmas (the video should have him huddled around a sterno can); “The Christmas Blues” matches a song to Dylan’s strengths and he owns it by the end. And David Hidalgo’s accordian makes a polka out of “Must Be Santa,” and that can’t be bad, especially when Dylan and company reel off those reindeer names: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon / Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.
But most of the album pretty much features straight-forward arrangements, with back-up harmonizers who also fill in with peppy, glee-club voices, that would be perfect for Bing or whatever mellow-voiced crooner popular c. 1945. “Winter Wonderland” is so completely a throwback, one imagines little Bobby Zimmerman, back home in Minnesota, happily entoning “when it snows, ain’t it thrillin’ how your nose gets a chillin’?” It’s kinda cute. “Silver Bells”’s arrangement is a bit country, but Dylan plays it too straight. A little twang would’ve helped. I’ve never liked “Little Drummer Boy” because it’s often given a big production that drowns the simplicity of the song in schmaltz. I gotta say: Bob’s version is now my favorite, even with those singers.
Then there are the religious hymns. It brings to mind what Johnson said about a dog walking on its hind legs (or a woman preaching): “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Did you ever wonder how Bob would deliver “Hark the Here-rrrr-ald Angels Sing”? Now you know. How about a run-through of the Latin version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” -- “Adeste Fideles”? Personally, I’m happy that Dylan’s recorded output now includes him singing in Latin. Take that all you people who feel he’s insufficiently lettered to be a national poet! But you can’t help feeling like the guy next to him in choir, trying not to laugh as he sounds it out.
But isn’t that what Christmas songs are about anyway? In my childhood we had those “Sing Along with Mitch” records and everyone was supposed to chime in, regardless of whether they could carry the tune. “First Noel,” for instance, is like letting the worst rasper in the room take the lead. You can imagine the twinkle in his eyes at actually getting through it. But you gotta ask yourself: does he hear what we hear?
The lyrics of the secular songs are mostly sentimental, the lyrics of the religious ones fairly solemn, but, either way, they stay in the mind. And I can’t get past a certain surreal feeling: I know more Dylan songs off by heart than by any other songwriter -- and to hear him sing a group of songs that everyone knows the words to, is ... like some alternate reality, but it’s also about as “folk” as you can get. And when he gets through, at his own pacing, “someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow, so hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” almost choking on the final word, well, it does make that star feel kind of fragile against whatever the fates allow, so, yeah, have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.
All proceeds from the album are being donated to “Feed America,” and other charities in other countries, so only a thorough Scrooge could completely denigrate the effort. Who ever suspected the “jingle jangle morning” would become the “jingle jangle” of Santa’s sleigh bells?