“It sounds like someone is torturing an animal while Christmas music plays in the background.” Thus did one of my brothers sum up Bob Dylan’s new holiday album, Christmas in the Heart. And he’s got a point—Bob sounds more like the guy who stumbles in the back door during midnight mass than he sounds like Bing Crosby. In fact, if Bing Crosby had washed down a carton of Lucky Strikes every day with a bottle of Knob Creek, and then lived to be a million, this is exactly the Christmas album he would record. But Bing didn’t, and instead we have Bob croaking out “Little Drummer Boy” and other Christmas favorites, no doubt with the Knob Creek nearby.
Why? And why should we care? For a couple of reasons. First, Dylan is not just pulling a stunt here—“ha ha, let’s make my fans buy this schlock”’—rather, he obviously put a fair amount of effort into the performance and production of these songs. Dylan has never been too subtle about it when he’s mailing something in—remember Self-Portrait?—and I didn’t find this to be the case here. His voice is ruined, to be sure, but his timing and his sense for the rhythms of good old-fashioned Americana remain impeccable.
But it’s more than that. The songs with religious themes in Christmas in the Heart are exactly those that come across as the most moving and memorable. Some of the strictly secular songs are terrifying—the frenetic pacing and bizarre musical accompaniment on “Must Be Santa” made my skin crawl, and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is the sort of thing, if I might paraphrase Anne Lamott, that makes me want to lap gin from the cat’s dish—but there’s a poignancy to some of the religiously-themed tunes that is impossible to ignore. That includes “Little Drummer Boy” (history’s first expression of liberation theology? Listen to the lyrics) as well as “Adeste Fideles” and “Little Town of Bethlehem.” Don’t ask me what faith Bob Dylan confesses, because my guess is as good as yours, but there’s no denying he captures in these songs the anticipation of Christ’s birth as well as the joy present in the long, long waiting for Christmas day.
I’m not saying you should play this during the holiday party at work; but it’s an interesting listen.
P.S. All of the artist's U.S. royalities from sales of these recordings will be donated to Feeding America, a non-profit food resource.
Jim Keane, S.J.