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Credit: Jean-Luc

Music

Exploring the oddity of Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart

@TomTaylorFO

Bob Dylan releasing a festive album called Christmas in the Heart complete with cover art of horses dashing through the snow seems like a surrealist trip akin to Vlad the Impaler getting a job as a health and safety officer on a building site or Hieronymus Bosch temping as a designer at Clinton’s Cards during Valentines season. Granted, Dylan is allowed to embrace the cheer of Christmas, but the iconoclast seemed to hit every cliché firmly on the nose as he disavowed his commerce defying past and stepped right into Christmas in a more flamboyant way than Elton John, and that’s saying something!

If you were to ask 100 Dylan fans in some Family Fortunes-like survey to name their favourite record from his back catalogue, a fair chunk would name Christmas in the Heart and every one of them would be avoiding the tricky question with a quick snipe. Even before you get to the quality of the record, it is a puzzling oddity that it simply exists. A whole host of unlikely stars have shunned sneering when Santa comes around – hell, even David Bowie stopped sniffing his snow pile for a hot second and inexplicably teamed up with the grandfatherly Bing Crosby for a festive favourite – but for some reason the man with a voice of sand glue trading lines like “I hope that you die and your death will come soon” for “who laughs this way ‘ho ho ho’?” is the most inexplicable of all.

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The record came in 2009, a point in time when Dylan’s horse vocals had taken on a timbre so coarse that even the most fearsome Clint Eastwood character would tremble upon hearing him croon. Yet these far from cuddly tones were put front and centre alongside the jazzed-up melodies of Christmas classics from years gone by. At times, it even seems like Dylan could’ve written ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ back in 1739 and was simply reanimated by a festive Dr Frankenstein to mark the 270th anniversary of the track. It is, in fact, the perfect portrayal of the drunk in a midnight choir. Perhaps as Leonard Cohen once suggested, Dylan was merely trying, in his way, to be free, ala ‘Bird on the Wire’.

The record, after all, isn’t that awful in terms of a piece of novelty music, but it isn’t that great either. However, the one element that may well render this whole piece cynical, is that all the US generated proceeds went to the charitable organisation Feeding America. That being said, if like me you bought the album internationally, it’s hard to look past the puzzling oddity that it presents which is only furthered by the inner sleeve peculiarly displaying an image of Bettie Page in a Santa Suit. If it is all a joke, then it’s not quite a ‘Ho Ho Ho’ laugh out loud one. The one thing that is undeniable, is that if this was the first Dylan record that you had ever heard, you’d think he was closer to an outsider artist than the greatest of all time.

As with most of his 21st-century albums, Dylan self-produced the record under his Jack Frost moniker which might actually hint that he had simply developed a fascination with festivity in his old age. After all, he did say, “[Christmas] is so worldwide and everyone can relate to it in their own way.” There is a touch of that same universality from something specific about his very best music. What’s more, when it was put to Dylan that some critics viewed the album as ironic, he responded: “Critics like that are on the outside looking in. They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to. They would have no gut level understanding of me and my work, what I can and can’t do—the scope of it all.”

Dylan has refused to be boxed throughout his career and that has not only been to his credit, but it is something that earmarks him as the foremost trailblazer there is. That you go your way, I’ll go mine ethos is behind many of his triumphs as he refused to play to the gallery or anyone other than his own wandering muse for that matter. But no amount of ‘you don’t understand what I’m doing’ can explain Christmas in the Heart, I, for one, certainly don’t understand what he’s doing, that’s a fair cop, but I’m not sure he does either, or anyone else for that matter.

Despite the sort of overwhelmingly surreal vignette that the record comprises colouring what is essentially a subpar gravel-voiced charity album with the sort of head scratch that can cause fans to rabbit-on, the only question that remains is how our heroes often waver in their later years. Well, as Dylan mused himself in his memoir, to reach spiritually profound heights “you have to get power and dominion over the spirits. I had it once and once was enough.” Fortunately, despite the occasional weird misfire he has proved that even in his Autumn years he can still burst into bloom with brilliance, even if I still can’t figure out what’s going on with the odd winter hitch.