No one ever made a living betting on what Bob Dylan will do next. But a Christmas album? The balladeer of anthemic protest, the poet master of surreal imagery has recorded Christmas In The Heart, a collection of familiar Christmas tunes filtered, as an ad appropriate to the pre-rock feel of the album might put it, through Bob Dylan's unique vocal stylings.
I'm with those who applaud him for his giving all his profits in perpetuity to a variety of hunger charities. (Some places couldn't resist this. The Brisbane Times headlined their review: "Yule be surprised what Dylan has done for a good Claus.)
But I don't know how to review the album. Instead, let me made a few observations. First of all, this whole project is sincere. This is not some sort of in-joke or ironic post-modern creation. Dylan's not wearing a Santa Claus mask. I'm not sure what to make of a contented Bob Dylan. He seems to have found his direction home. I'm glad for him. but it was the little boy lost who fashioned so many rhyming guideposts for our journey through life. It was in moments of contentment that Dylan's songwriting suffered. Dylan's voice, even as its cheerful, still strikes me as more appropriate for melancholy than joy. His voice was built for a blues sound wailing despair or unleashing sarcastic anger. But it is cruel to wish someone sadness so there will be more songs, and doing so would certainly not be in the spirit of the album. I therefore limit this comment to an observation that doesn't cross the border into a hope.
There is no clear way to provide an analysis of the material, pondering its reverberating layers, dissecting its sources and allusions, locating its place in the ongoing Dylan narrative. The sole possible exception is the to consider the album's title. At first glance, Christmas In The Heart seems innocuous, sentimental, and familiar. but, and maybe only because this is Bob Dylan, it is tempting to unpack its meaning. For example, if Christmas is in the heart, it's inside us, a feeling more than a holy day. In that case, this is a spiritual Christmas rather than a religious one. On this reading, Dylan sees in Christmas a time for charity, for joy, for a celebration of life. This is Christmas in the Heartland.
And if that is so, then this is an American album more than a Christian album. For those alert to every twist and turn in the ongoing saga "Is He a Jew or a Christian?" this album provides less data than its subject matter might suggest. The album is about a good-hearted singer content to be a loyal citizen in the Land of the Great American Songbook and singing his heart out with some seasonal standards to help those in need.
Of course, don't get used to this Bob Dylan because who knows where he'll go next? It's okay to anticipate, but I wouldn't place any bets.