- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bob Dylan
Christmas in the Heart
Columbia Records

Strictly speaking, Bob Dylan is singing about Jesus again.

But “Christmas in the Heart,” the enigmatic one’s first-ever holiday-themed release, is less a reprise of Mr. Dylan’s Christian era than it is an extension of his work as host of the satellite-radio program “Theme Time Radio Hour.”

Like the great music historian Elijah Wald (“Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues”), Mr. Dylan chafes at excessive canon veneration; he sees instead one long continuum of American popular music, where Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters exist comfortably alongside deified black bluesmen and jazz legends.

With its selection of well-known hymns and holiday traditionals, “Christmas in the Heart” (domestic and international proceeds will benefit three charities that feed the hungry) allows Mr. Dylan a breather from the weighty meta-themes of his recent work (mortality: “Time Out of Mind”; the debt owed by white performers to black innovators: “Love and Theft”).

This album — Mr. Dylan’s 34th — is nothing more nor less than its bucolic, Currier-and-Ives-inspired cover art would indicate: a fun, nostalgia-inducing romp through the past.

That’s not to say everything works equally well here. A general rule: the more American, the better. (Luckily, at 15 tracks, compared to Mr. Dylan’s customary 10, there is room for misfires.)

After introductory sleigh bells, Mr. Dylan’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” drops into the galloping hillbilly groove of the 1947 Autry original. A chorale of soothing male singers answers Mr. Dylan’s croaking in the verses. “All is merry and bright” indeed.

“Winter Wonderland” follows much the same formula, only this time with angelic female backup vocal support.

By this time, it’s clear we’ve taken a long detour from Highway 61; Mr. Dylan’s able band mates have softly transported us to a floating, chiming Americana cloud where Dinah Shore and Patti Page are waiting to serenade us after a long, eggnog-indulgent night. (On that score, Mr. Dylan nails the boozy vibe of the Rat Pack’s “Christmas Blues.”)

It’s when things turn quasi-sacred, however, that the spell is broken; the easy sledding and the hot cocoa give way to an Iditarod-like slog. On “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel” and “O’ Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles),” for example, Mr. Dylan’s shaky vocal pitch betrays him. On the latter — with its first verse sung in Latin, Nat King Cole-style! — Mr. Dylan sounds positively like the stereotypical drunk Santa who has taken to sloppy caroling.

Soon he recovers with the album’s knockout track, “Must Be Santa,” a warp-speed polka kitted out with the accordion of Los Lobos vet David Hidalgo, who figured prominently on Mr. Dylan’s last album, “Together Through Life.”

“Christmas Island,” with its silky pedal-steel guitar accompaniment, is another warm pull from the brandy snifter.

Mr. Dylan manages with “Christmas in the Heart” both to strike a blow against the commercialization of Christmas and to continue his catholic-minded, deep-roots exploration of the sounds of 20th-century America.

Neat trick.

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