Though it may seem like the most unlikely endeavor, longtime fans of rock's most famous bard must applaud the notion of Robert Allen Zimmerman making a Christmas album--that is, at least if you appreciate the wickedly sarcastic sense of humor and love of surrealism that have always been a strain in Bob Dylan's work.
This is, after all, the man whose autobiography lauds old-time wrestler Gorgeous George and ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim as two of his biggest inspirations, and who loves to mess with our notion of his status as the Voice of a Generation with the occasional mind-boggling detour like making a Victoria's Secret commercial.
Conceptually, then, "Christmas in the Heart" is a success, simply because it's so unexpected and downright bizarre. You might think that as he enters the sixth decade of his career, with 34 studio albums and countless live recordings to his credit, Dylan couldn't come up with anything to surprise us anymore. Well, he just found something.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the music, the album is a complete failure.
From the faux-Currier and Ives cover art to the annoyingly precious arrangements, and from the beyond-predictable choice of tired holiday chestnuts to the chorus of backing vocalists who sound as if they could be the surviving members of the King Family, Dylan plays things beyond straight, adhering to the syrupy, schlocky pop sounds of the pre-rock era that also provided the worst moments on his recent albums.
Never a conventionally good singer, of late, Dylan's once powerful croak has become more of a raspy wheeze. But his delivery is the real problem.
When the star stumbles through "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he sounds like the family's disinherited black sheep embarrassment, delivering the sentiment as a threat rather than a promise. In "Winter Wonderland," when that treacly chorus coos, "We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman," he sounds like a psychotic as he answers, "Until the other kids all knock him down!" And by the time he starts slaughtering the familiar Latin refrain of "Adeste fideles"--"Venite adoremus Dominum" becomes, no kidding, "Benito adore-a-moose domino!"--you don't know whether to wince or guffaw.
If the proceeds of this album weren't being donated to charities dedicated to easing world hunger, you might think it was all a big put-on. Regardless, fans would be well advised to make a donation of their own and spare themselves this holiday torture.