Many are the musical atrocities committed in the names of Christmas and charity; but rarely can they have been as downright weird as Christmas In The Heart, which slipped out earlier this week with neither fuss nor fanfare, promotion nor preview – an odd situation for an artist whose last album topped both British and American charts this year.
One’s first reaction, upon hearing Dylan struggling through the up-tempo schlock of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, is to wonder: is this a joke?
That grizzled husk of a voice, so expressively apt on the blues material with which he’s forged his latest comeback, sounds simply adrift here, surrounded by sleigh bells and MOR backing singers. But rather than cover the bluesier Christmas songs – “Blue Christmas”, “Merry Christmas Baby”, “Slipping Into Christmas” – Dylan hasopted to tackle the core repertoire of seasonal classics, coming across like the Ghost Of Christmas Past as he wheezes through “Do You Hear What I Hear?”anda “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”.
Nor has he tampered with the songs stylistically. We know, from his stewardship of the Theme Time Radio Hour, that Dylan is an authority on period musical modes, and he’s opted here for authentic Fifties’ “countrypolitan” arrangements of the kind that would be familiar from his own childhood, complete with retro crooner female backing vocal duo The Ditty Bops adding an Andrews Sisters appeal that chimes nicely with the inner-sleeve snap of postwar cheesecake icon Bettie Page. But his unalloyed treatment of “Winter Wonderland" is so kitsch it's enough to have Phil Spector spinning in his cell.
Things improve further into the album. There’s a Tom Waitsian barstool charm to an “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on which Dylan sounds genuinely in his cups, and Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Blues”, complete with harmonica solo, is much more suitable for his delivery than the creaky “The Christmas Song”, aka “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is fairly Bob-proof too, with some nice, liquid licks from R&B guitar legend Phil Upchurch balancing his ragged vocal.
But the best thing here is “Must Be Santa”, a Tex-Mex polka romp featuring David Hidalgo’s ebullient accordion, which has a joyous exuberance absent from the rest of the album. The charitable intentions behind the project (which in this country benefits the homeless charity Crisis) are unimpeachable - but Dylan perhaps ought to have done it earlier in his career, around the time of Nashville Skyline, when he still had the smooth croon appropriate to the task.