Jews suffer from holiday envy: Goyim get the choice gifts and classic songs, while we just light candles and nibble chocolate coins. Maybe that’s why, despite recent synagogue appearances, Bob Dylan did a 2006 Christmas special on his XM satellite-radio show. Hearing what fun he had with yuletide trivia, religious jokes, jive patter, holiday wishes, and poem recitals while playing Xmas-themed bop, calypso, garage rock, ska, mambo, early r&b, and lounge records, the announcement that he was recording a holiday album of his own didn’t seem that bizarre.
The self-produced, for-charity result, Christmas in the Heart, is itself a little bizarre, though, laboring as it does under the weight of too many standards he doesn’t have the pipes for (although, in all fairness, he wouldn’t have had the pipes in 1964, either). While Louis Armstrong sounded cute rasping through festive notes, Dylan’s own rasp is just painful, compounded by heavenly male and female choruses that might’ve wandered off a Lawrence Welk special. Mostly, those vocal helpers drown him out on a cheery take of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and a pious, hushed “Little Drummer Boy.”
Yes, you have to wonder why he thought he had the open-throated chops to hit the high notes on pop standards like “Winter Wonderland,” “The First Noel,” or “Silver Bells,” ordinarily the realm of braying, technically flawless divas. Which Bob, of course, is not. So while the low-key, loungey music gives off a cozy holiday vibe, Dylan himself keeps destroying the atmosphere—play Christmas at a holiday gathering, and you’ll get nothing but WTF looks. To his credit, he starts “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the original Latin, but you’d still rather hear superior covers from Sinatra, not to mention the Brady Bunch, Twisted Sister, or Weezer.
It ain’t all gloom, though. The Tex-Mex sing-along “Must Be Santa,” the cute palm-tree-strewn novelty “Christmas Island,” and the languid harmonica showcase “Christmas Blues” are highlights, even if they sound like they floated in from another session. Plus, Bob really seems to be enjoying himself—this isn’t just a perverse joke, his not-exactly-golden throat be damned. Froggy tendencies aside, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” still come off as sweet and moving.
But overall, going up against the likes of Deano or Der Bingle doesn’t exactly flatter Bob—did he really think we’d prefer this to Dylan’s Rockin’ Xmas? As he proved on his XM show, he had much more appropriate material at his fingertips: His gravel-strewn voice could’ve easily torn into ye olde oldies from the likes of Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the Staple Singers. In fact, his radio show proved that he could take this strange concept even further and pull off a good holiday TV special based on that kind of rootsy material. It wouldn’t be any weirder than him peddling nighties, would it?
Music aside, you have to admire the audacious concept of this album, though. It took chutzpah for him to do something like this, unapologetically opening up his voice to ridicule. It’s charming to see that even Bob can get into the holiday spirit. And since Christmas is a time of forced cheer for many of us—full of familial anxiety and panicked shopping—an unerring record like this is more true to the occasion than any forced yuletide cheer. Really, it’s the holiday record we deserve.