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Is Dylan's Heart Really In This 'Christmas'?

Bob Dylan's new Christmas album benefits the charity Feeding America, which serves the hungry across America.
Bob Dylan's new Christmas album benefits the charity Feeding America, which serves the hungry across America.

It's the worst album Bob Dylan has released since 1970's Self Portrait. It's a total ear-bleeder. It's a hoax.

These are just a few of the critical judgments that have already seen print about Christmas In The Heart, which is, yes, the new Christmas album from Bob Dylan. It just goes to prove there's nothing like a mixture of sincerity, self-deprecating humor and an appreciation for unfashionable aspects of the past to get people in full-bore sarcastic-cynicism mode.

Among those criticisms is the odd complaint that Dylan's voice sounds awful. I'm sorry, have you not been listening to Dylan for the past decade — or for his entire career? An imperfect vocal instrument is at once characteristic of Dylan and a limitation he's frequently turned to his advantage. And as far as the idea that covering songs such as "Christmas Island" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" is cornball, well, the flip-side of cornball is amusement in context. Dylan, producing himself under the name "Jack Frost," is surrounding himself with sweet choral voices and arrangements straight out of a 1960s middle-of-the-road or "countrypolitan" album. It's just that instead of hearing Johnny Mathis or Eddy Arnold crooning, you have Dylan croaking with both solemnity and a wink.

Come on — that's fun, in the manner of other Christmas songs ranging from Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" to the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping." So is Dylan's polka-rhythm version of "Must Be Santa," with help from Los Lobos' David Hidalgo on accordion.

Yes, there are some lousy clunkers on this album. I don't think anyone is capable of making "Little Drummer Boy" endurable. (Yes, I do remember the campy/sincere Bing Crosby-David Bowie collaboration from years ago.) And Dylan does make his slow, deliberate version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" sound more like a threat than a promise.

As is consistent with current Dylan, the album operates as a further exploration of American popular song in all its forms, no matter how uncool. In the same spirit as his satellite radio show, Christmas in the Heart contains some put-ons, some sincerity, some goofy humor and some deep dives into the mystery of what it means to celebrate the birth of Christ in both Latin and the language of kitsch.

Proceeds from this album will go to a charity, Feeding America. What can I say? This holiday season, while trimming the tree, I am just as likely to put on Christmas In The Heart as frequently as I do Phil Spector's great album A Christmas Gift For You. Ho-ho-ho.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.