Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart (Sony, 2009)
By Logan K. Young
While it’s probably a little too soon to bandy about the “d” word – “dementia,” that is – Bob Dylan’s bizarre behavior persists. Even a cursory look at the headlines will show that he’s been on quite the tear lately: leering at Victoria’s Secret underwear models, offering Zen koans for Cadillac, allowing a port-a-john on his property to fall into rancid neglect…being picked up by New Jersey police on suspicions of vagrancy. So perhaps releasing a Christmas record in the second week of October isn’t that far out of line for him now.
But before we talk about Christmas in the Heart, we should probably address the whole God thing. After all, this is a Christmas album. Thus, let’s review for a moment: Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman – a Jew if ever there were one. And as the ’70s woke up into the ’80s, almost miraculously, he became a born-again, died-in-the-wool Christian. Then, in the next decade, he was seen back at the Western Wall clad in a yarmulke, prayer shawl and set of tefillin. Throughout his life, Dylan has had an enigmatic, even kabbalistic relationship with religion. And in song, he’s straddled the line between the sacred and profane about as earnestly as he’s honored his covenant with Jakob’s mother Sara. At any rate, that this record was borne of some Magi-like gift to Baby Jesus is probably not true.
For the most part, the 15 tracks collected here are traditional Christmas tunes, aged but not at all archaic. If you’ve ever yearned to hear Bob Dylan growl “ho-ho-ho,” “ring-a-ling” or “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum,” here is your opportunity. If you’ve ever wished to hear Dylan try his hand at vulgar Latin or give himself a sort of meta shout-out (i.e. “Jack Frost nipping at your nose”), then Voila! As usual, his backing band is solid and well-rehearsed, providing the perfect accompaniment to Dylan’s nicotine-seared vocals. And to his credit, the songs that work the best here are the ones that Dylan has arranged himself. Kudos also for the cheesecake portrait of Bettie Page in a Santa suit and garters that graces the inside liner notes.
Some Dylanologists will inevitably rank this effort among other gimmicky, warmed-over releases such as Dylan & The Dead. Others still will label it an odd, self-indulgent curio like Self Portrait. But unlike most Christmas albums from well-established artists, Dylan’s doesn’t flaunt its yuletide commercialism. In fact, Christmas in the Heart may be Dylan’s most socially conscious record in years considering all present and future royalties will be donated to the hunger-fighting charities Feeding America, The World Food Programme and Crisis UK. The patron saint of the people, maybe Bob Dylan knew what he was doing with this one all along.