Apologies to anyone who has nightmares tonight because of that headline, but I think that’s the organizing principle behind Bob Dylan’s new one, Christmas in the Heart. It’s been almost forty years since His Bobness released an album as conceptually brilliant, artistically confident, and virtually unlistenable as Self Portrait, and now that Dylan has done the trick — and I’ve done my bit for charity by buying it — I want to mark the occasion with a few words before shelving the thing.
Greil Marcus, the eminence grise of deep-dish Dylanology, pre-empted any thoughts of doing a one-liner review of Christmas in the Heart by by opening his review of Self Portrait with “What is this shit?” But the concept behind Self Portrait was very astute: if we build our identities from the things we like, then why shouldn’t Bob Dylan reveal himself through the songs he liked?
And if Christmas is the most nostalgic of holidays, a time for family get-togethers and the observance of traditions, then why shouldn’t Dylan style the musical settings for his Christmas album after the crooners of his childhood, and those Yuletide television specials featuring blanded-out whitebread singers on overlit sets, dazzling the TV camera with wide, preternaturally bright smiles? In other words, why shouldn’t Bob Dylan put out a Perry Como holiday record?
I realize you can instantly think of a thousand reasons why you wouldn’t want to hear Dylan wheezing along with King Family-style backup singers, but that’s the kind of stuff television sets beamed into households during Dylan’s youth, and Christmas brings out the child in all of us, right? The title alone revives the memories of all those Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials that time and post-traumatic stress disorder had buried somewhere back behind my medulla oblongata. As one whose childhood occurred on the tail end of that era, I could recognize all the nostalgia zones Dylan was working in, and I acknowledge the intent even as I shake my head at the result.
Though by no stretch of the imagination is Christmas in the Heart a good album, portions are weirdly listenable in a Christmas-with-Dr.-Demento kind of way. Future generations who want to know how Dylan pronounced Latin will be thrilled to have “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or the first verse of it, anyway. The uptempo numbers tend to work best. When things slow down, Dylan sounds like a man trying to compete in a shot-put match by flinging his own larynx.
From all accounts, Dylan’s real Christmas gift to the world has been rehiring guitarist Charlie Sexton for his touring band. The recent shows are supposed to be vastly better than anything Dylan’s given the world of late. I’ll want to hear one of those sometime soon. I can’t imagine ever wanting to hear Christmas in the Heart again.