Finding a place for Bob Dylan‘s 34th studio album in one of recorded music’s greatest solo catalogues is a perilous business. From its first rattle of sleighbells, “Christmas In The Heart” demands to be compared not with this year’s “Together Through Life”, but, perhaps, with “The Twelve Songs Of Christmas”, by Jim Reeves. “Christmas In The Heart” is a collection of 15 traditional Christmas songs, played in glimmeringly traditional style, pushed into leftfield by a pretty off-the-wall choice of lead vocalist.
Dylan’s purposes are uncharacteristically clear: all the proceeds from the album are being channelled in perpetuity towards charities – Feeding America in the States, the World Food Programme and Crisis UK in Britain – with the avowed intention to bring “food security to people in need.” His artistic motivations, however, are harder than ever to divine. “Christmas In The Heart” exists squarely in Middle America; a perpetual, disingenuously cosy 1950s of pipes, slippers and hygienic country swing.
Dylan has been tackling this milieu on his records since “Love And Theft”, but on those earlier records, whitebread culture was always satisfyingly adulterated by the blues – something which only really surfaces on the agreeably slouchy “Christmas Blues”, with Dylan preferring to attack “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” instead.
For even the most dogged defender of late-period Dylan, these vocals make for a challenging listen. Removed from the comfort of his own musical constructions, they often sound like a collection of rasps, croaks and burrs optimistically corralled into what just might be words; Latin has never sounded more like a dead language than when Dylan sings in it, hilariously, at the start of “O Come All Ye Faithful”.
At which point the project, aesthetically at least, starts looking like one more perverse, gnomic Dylan joke. But then again, there’s a palpable affection for the material running through the whole, bizarre endeavour; as if Dylan, always working away at the definition of Americana, had compiled a Theme Time Radio Hour playlist on Christmas, then decided to have a go at it himself.
Generally, though, it’s a paradox: a Dylan album which fails because it’s not enough like a Dylan album; and a Christmas album which fails because, confoundingly, it’s sung by Bob Dylan.
(By the way, a much, much longer version of this piece will appear in the next issue of Uncut, on sale October 27)