Bob Dylan’s Christmas album has been a talking point in Bobdom for some time. When one of my best Bob fans dismissed it as not worth hearing I didn’t rush to acquire. How wrong he is and I was! “How does it feel?” is a question synonymous with Dylan and here he doesn’t tell you how Christmas feels; he makes you feel it! There is warmth to this collection of songs that has you gathered with the family, round a hearth filled with a burning log fire, singing along to Theme Time Radio. That particular radio show that Bob has been hosting for a few years has, without doubt, influenced the choice of songs and the fifties arrangements that they are dressed up in. The little vocal backings are so un-Dylan but so Christmas. Who would have imagined forty years ago that we would ever hear Bob Dylan cover songs originally released by the likes of Bob Hope, Nat King Cole, Jim Reeves and Dean Martin!
Don’t for a minute, though, think this is a throwaway album by an artist who used to deal in world changing events! For the Christian this is maybe the world changing event and Dylan doesn’t miss the history changing implications. Christmas In The Heart captures both personas of the season. There is the Santa centred, gift giving one where everyone switches off their selfishness for a day or two and cuddles into the best of their humanity! Many Christians throw out this “secular” festival as a curse on the blessing of the real meaning of the season. Dylan rightfully celebrates this side of the season for the sense of joy and fun that shortens a dark winter and brings people together.
However, he doesn’t let it get in the way of the more deeply rooted meaning of the season. Santa at Christmas is no harm providing it doesn’t distract from the real possibility that lies within the celebration. These Christmas Carols would not have been in the family repertoire back in Bob’s Duluth upbringing. Dylan grew up Jewish and had an intensive conversion to Christianity before keeping everyone, maybe even himself, wondering since the early eighties. On this record Dylan doesn’t miss the theological implications at all. Most Carols pack a storytelling theology carrying weightiness and here Dylan does powerful versions of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful including the Latin, The First Noel and a version of O Little Town of Bethlehem that ends with a long Amen that more than suggests Dylan’s emphasis.
The musicianship is loose but classy. Silver Bells is gorgeous while The Christmas Blues rocks like an out-take from Together Through Life, Christmas Island has an Hawaiian swing and then there is the though nothing like the polka prance of Must Be Santa which has even my children singing along. The Carols could be seen as follow ups to Waits’ Go Tell It On The Mountain that he did with The Blind Boys Of Alabama a while back and let’s face it, in a sing off for the last spot in the Evensong Choir this is the only sing off that Bob might win! Yes, there are times his voice is frail and vulnerable but all in all this is as good an album of Christmas as there is. Takes the heart of it and transplants into yours.