Christmas means the ritual indulgence of two groups, the young and the old. Little Johnny gets all the presents his heart could desire (for at the very least the two hours before his attention span snaps); Great Uncle Monty gets to talk at some length about the Christmases of his own boyhood, and how much better they were. He may also get to listen to some of ‘his’ music, warbling along to a seasonal Perry Como if his voice is up to it, or just putting Frank Sinatra on the stereo, nodding along with a nostalgia few others in the room share.
Christmas In The Heart, the admittedly bizarre 47th studio album from Bob Dylan, has a little of the Uncle Monty about it. The arrangements, expertly played by Dylan’s seasoned band (even David Hidalgo returns from the Together Through Life sessions), are syrupy in that Golden Age way – this is a selection of songs heavily influenced by the tracks Dylan plays on his own Theme Time Radio Hour, suffused with the ghosts of Christmases past. There’s a schmaltzy backing choir of ‘mixed singers’; sleigh and tubular bells; and the sort of tracklisting which pays no heed to any song written later than 1950. This is an old-style crooner’s album, pure and simple.
Bob Dylan, of course, is no crooner – and it is his voice which, of course, represents the fly in the ointment. This is no po-faced exercise in pure nostalgia; anyone who dislikes Dylan’s voice will not be won over by this record, but in part this is because of the strange shapes it is pushed into by Dylan. He is not happy to grumble, a la Uncle Monty, through the festive hits of his youth. On ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ (no, really), he pronounces ‘Herald’ ‘Hearald’ – a typical bit of Dylan fun; on ‘Winter Wonderland’, one of the most joyous little cuts you will hear all year, Dylan’s cracked voice is forced to swagger and swing (“He’ll say are-you-married, we’ll say … NO, man!!”); ‘Have Your Self A Merry Little Christmas’ is as comforting as a crackling log fire, yet Dylan’s knowing, raddled delivery makes it something like a paen to lost friends, to be met again in some other, unknown Christmas.
Let’s not claim too much for Christmas In The Heart: it’s a novelty record, and all the artist’s royalties go to the charity Crisis (this is reason enough to buy it). But what a lovely novelty record it is. Just listen to ‘Must Be Santa’, ‘The Christmas Blues’ or ‘Christmas Island’, let yourself laugh with Dylan that it is the man who brought us ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Brownsville Girl’ singing “Who laughs this way – Ho, ho, ho” (for surely this is part of the fun!), and listen to those subtle cues that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing – and are having a whale of a time doing it – and it’s impossible not to feel festive, even in mid-October. The traditional material – ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ – are fairly poor, but they are in the minority, surrounded by bluesier and swingier fare.
Admittedly, enjoying the company of those for whom you have the fondest feelings is part of Christmas; others won’t be charmed by Uncle Monty, just, as always, annoyed. It’s a shared history, perhaps, which allows you to forgive him his festive inadequacies – even find pleasure in them. Still, there has been debate (and some red faces) even in the Dylan fan community about the wisdom of this particular venture. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this Uncle Monty would be indulged, by me or any of the others who sail with him: but Christmas In The Heart, though nostalgic and warm in the way one might expect from our current Dylan, who so revels in early recording music, is no messy accident. It’s just good fun. This old fella will be welcome to warble on my December 25th.