Dylan’s newest a holly jolly headache

Brandon Specktor

In any other country on Earth, and from any other artist on Earth, it would seem unusual for a Christmas album to debut in October. But this is America, the land of opportunity, where Bob Dylan can do whatever the hell he wants, and if he wants to release an album of fifteen overplayed holiday covers before Halloween then, god knows, I’m not going to be the one to stop him.

But I’m not going to be the one to buy it, either.

Christmas in the Heart is the latest album from Bob Dylan, the messiah of American folk-rock who is as timeless as he is unpredictable, and in some ways the album lives up to that reputation. Christmas standards are folk music in the sense that they have been passed on and regurgitated ad nauseum throughout American musical history, so the selection is not entirely unfitting territory for the born-again Bobby D.

Despite that, the wise, observational style of old-school lyrics and the warming, soulful voice that launched Dylan’s renown have been hastily replaced by banal jingles and wheezing vocals that would probably send children running in fear if they were to encounter him caroling on a poorly-lit street some snowy night. These may be your parents’ Christmas carols, but this is not your parents’ Bob Dylan.

Even more overdone than Dylan’s accordion-laden April release Together Through Life, Christmas in the Heart reeks of hammy embellishments on songs that, let’s be honest, exhausted their creative potential a century ago. The gospel back-up singing on “”O Little Town of Bethlehem”” brings a showy insincerity to lyrics that are already difficult for a secular ear to tolerate, and an excess of slide guitar on tracks like “”Christmas Island”” lend an unbearably artificial feel to songs that have traditionally come from an allegedly emotional place.

Dylan’s generation-defining voice becomes less and less charming as the decades pass, and his Tom-Waits-with-a-nasal-infection sound on tracks like “”I’ll Be Home for Christmas”” are sterling case studies.

With fifteen tracks of histrionic holiday pablum that are devoid of any of Bobby’s characteristic artistry, one must wonder why Dylan, a man legendary for rebellious lyrics and separating himself from overused mainstream conventions, would even make such an album. The cynical answer is because he’s getting old and it’s easy.

As Christmas fever begins spreading with more intensity than swine flu, you can rest assured that you will hear Dylan’s version of “”Winter Wonderland”” blasting from high-end retail speakers and “”Here Comes Santa Claus”” inundating Starbucks lobbies, and it will make money. Fortunately, Dylan has pledged a portion of his royalties to the Feeding America charity, which is easily the most sincere and admirable aspect of an otherwise intolerable album.