Album Review

Dylan strains the holiday spirit

October 12, 2009

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Bob Dylan Christmas in the Heart
ESSENTIAL “I’ll Be Home for Christmas’’

A colleague’s recent knee-jerk reaction says it better than I ever could. Vaguely aware of what was about to play, she put on the headphones, heard the cloying female backup vocals that open “Winter Wonderland,’’ and promptly pleaded: “Oh, God. Please don’t let Bob Dylan start singing.’’ But then he did, in that paint-peeling croak, and she cringed and politely handed back the headphones.

OK, that’s a harsh indictment of a decent album with good intentions, but it’s also an astute barometer of how many people will respond to Dylan’s first Christmas recording.

Mercifully, this is not even a remotely religious record, which shouldn’t surprise fans familiar with Dylan’s ever-evolving spirituality. Starting with the album artwork, including a cartoon image of pinup Bettie Page in Santa attire, “Christmas in the Heart’’ is a jovial period piece full of the old-time comforts you expect from Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.’’ While it’s refreshing to see Dylan try a bit of whimsy, too often the album errs on the side of kitsch.

If you’ve ever groused about Dylan’s voice being shot, this is not the Christmas album for you. His cragginess is front and center: jarring and strained on the chestnuts (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing’’), but then surprisingly affecting on the bluesy songs (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas’’).

A Tex-Mex melody spruces up “Must Be Santa,’’ whose tongue-twisting chorus gives Dylan his most vigorous vocal performance in recent memory. Still, a question lingers throughout that song and the whole album: Must it be Dylan singing this stuff? (Out tomorrow)