By Joel Francis
Bob Dylan surprised a lot of people when he announced the release of his first Christmas album several months ago. “Christmas in the Heart” surprises in a different way, however, by playing it straight and offering no surprises at all.
Adorned with a cover that looks like a Norman Rockwell collectible dinner plate come to life, “Christmas in the Heart” features 15 well-worn holiday favorites with arrangements and production straight out of the 1940s and ‘50s.
In retrospect, Dylan’s desire to record a Christmas album shouldn’t have been an astonishment. For the past several years, Dylan has dabbled in pre-war pop. A cover of “Return to Me” popped up on a soundtrack several years ago, and several similar originals, including “Beyond the Horizon,” populated his 2006 album “Modern Times.”
Of course, Dylan has long been a purveyor of traditional song and the folk tradition. As the oral history components of American society diminish, holiday and children’s music are the few remaining songs passed from generation to generation. Christmas music stands directly at the crossroads of these passions.
A third consideration is that Dylan delights in doing the unexpected and challenging expectations. The man who returned to the Newport Folk Festival nearly 10 years ago in a wig (and dons a similar headpiece in the video for a “Christmas in the Heart” song), appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and wrote a song with Michael Bolton, clearly enjoys toying with his dedicated following and legend.
Unfortunately, this understanding doesn’t make “Christmas in the Heart” an enjoyable listen. Producing the album under the pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan drapes the album in arpeggio guitars that recall Les Paul’s singles with Bing Crosby, lilting backing voices in the style of the Andrews Sisters and a nostalgic gauze that would be at home on a Perry Como platter. By smoothing every surface, Dylan leaves no room for any rough edges, which, frankly, is all his voice has to offer these days.
The song selection is another stumbling block. The vast majority of these hymns and carols have been heard and performed a thousand times over. Although his arrangements are clever – check out the piano on “Little Drummer Boy” or violin and light country touch on “Silver Bells” – they hem too closely to the tried and true. Dylan does not have a traditional voice, so it’s understandable his singing doesn’t work in this traditional setting. The album would have been better served if Dylan played to his strengths, like a reading of “Run Rudolph Run” a la “Summer Days,” or more obscure choices, like Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a lot Like Daddy.”
The single “Must Be Santa” hints at what “Heart” could have been. Originally a 1961 sing-along with Columbia Records honcho Mitch Miller, Dylan more than doubles the tempo and thanks to the frenetic accordion playing of Los Lobos’ David Hildago – who also bolstered Dylan’s “Together Through Life,” released just six months prior – turns the song into a mariachi rave. Another lesser-known track, “Christmas Blues” was also a good choice. More songs like this and fewer Latin hymns could have made “Christmas in the Heart” a holiday staple.
With all album proceeds going to charity, Dylan’s intentions are noble and his reasons sound, but the flawed execution prove the record’s undoing. It’s too bad “Must Be Santa” wasn’t released as a stand-alone single, with any of the remaining 14 songs on its b-side, or as the centerpiece of an EP. As it is, “Christmas in the Heart” is best purchased as a Black Friday bargain.