What would you say if Bob Dylan came caroling in your neighborhood on Christmas Eve?
"Listen, Bobby D. That was an absolutely rip-roaring take on 'Must Be Santa,' but would you mind terribly playing 'Idiot Wind' while you're here?"
Well, that's exactly what you'd do, if you had any sense. Thus, the round of LOLs and OMGs that accompanied the recent news that Dylan had recorded a Christmas album for release this season, Christmas in the Heart (which hits stores Tuesday). The Church of Dylanology, as always, will look at the album as a problem to be solved. Is it a joke? Or a further exploration of the roots music obsession that has also informed his trio of recent good-to-great proper albums? Something else?
My take, after one listen (Sony didn't provide advances of the CD) is that there's no deep meaning or in-joke to behold here. Anyone attempting a hermeneutical link between Dylan's new version of "Little Drummer Boy" and his recent rewrite of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" is asking to be made a fool of in the public square. Whatever historian Sean Wilentz says, these new carols and standards don't sound like part of the same project as the allusive, original compositions on Love and Theft or Together Through Life. There's not enough context or commentary on any of these standards that links them to anything else in Dylan's catalog, not even his previous WTF covers (on the Self Portrait LP). But neither is this album a throwaway joke, as some insiders have suspected: all the proceeds are going (in perpetuity) to a trio of worthy charities that target hunger. How churlish would Dylan have to be in hooking up such a noble consequence to an entirely unserious premise?
So, if every Dylan album distinguishes itself in some fashion, let's say Christmas in the Heart achieves its unique status by virtue of its being the one you're not supposed to think about at all—not even once (let alone twice). In fact, thinking will ruin the fun that can be found here: Dylan's reclamation of the long-neglected lyric about "muddling through" troubles during "Have a Merry Little Christmas," the well-wishing pathos his ravaged vocal chords manage to locate in "Little Drummer Boy" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The worst track on the album—"Here Comes Santa Claus"—is, thankfully, dispensed with at the outset. The jolly backing vocals and lilting rhythm section both clash with Dylan's voice so badly, it might actually make you surly enough to clock a loved one on Christmas morning. The rest of the record, though, is sufficiently spirited to be a minor pleasure.
Editor's Note: Thanks to a commenter's sharp eye, the above paragraph has been changed, reflecting the fact that Dylan did not ad-lib the line from "Have a Merry Little Christmas."