Eventually, during the holiday season, your drunk uncle screeches his old Ford truck to a standstill and starts singing songs. You just never expect it to be Uncle Bob Dylan—and doing Christmas traditionals in a straight, respectful and sober demeanor, at that. One is also apt to race by car accidents, instead of joining in the strangely intoxicating rubberneck ritual. And again, one just never expects to see Dylan, still our Bard—voice beaten, torn and ragged and nearly gone, that’s true, but still going—on the side of that road, either, warbling and waving as one drives by, offering good tidings, joy and peace.
But Dylan has a way of defying expectations, avoiding that fatal career car wreck, and doing things that are not quite what one would expect. In a year that featured a rare tiny dose of that old loose, cantankerous, and humorous vibe that fueled his earlier recordings on Together Through Life, the Man from the North Country offers another surprising twist. Perhaps as a nostalgic afterglow from his now defunct but delightful radio program, Dylan digs into old Christmas songs, and one can either look up from the Bingo card, or flip to another song by some heady cat, as the generational case may be.
Depending on one’s familiarity with this seasonal material, Dylan finds his path into these old songs, but rarely offers his own spin (“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has a nice Ravel’s Bolero vibe thing going on, but just sort of walks in place). Why mess with tradition, right? (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is sung straight, and is almost awful if it wasn’t so sincere and uplifting, but still… Jesus, just keep driving). The background vocals on many of the tracks echo the music he would have listened to from the early 20th century as he was growing up in Minnesota. “Winter Wonderland” is a hoot, and the girl chorus works quite well; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” offers the male flipside with a restrained performance accompanied with nifty old school background vocals.
Yes, “echo” may be the key here as Dylan neither roams too far afield during these proceedings, nor digs too much into the ghosts of his career’s past to find a way to do anything original. The songs are just… well, sweet and pleasant, and I suppose that is the point of this playfully happy music. Instrumentation is subtle, tasteful, and occasionally inspired as evidenced by the work with his touring band. “Must Be Santa” is all Midwestern hopped-up polka music—a fast and cheesy spirit that will never die. Suddenly, Dylan and his band springs to life on this energetic piece as the song harkens back to those early Zimmerman roots. Recorded live, it is the choice cut on the album—guaranteed to wake up the dead, and Dylan’s vocals echo, call and call and respond, and join the background vocals in fine fashion. Do yourself a favor—get THIS track, and save the others for your aunt, or that rare moment when you need that old-time Xmas hook.
Dylan has been the man of a million faces and masks throughout his nearly five-decade career. Indeed, he has also worn many, many hats, and one supposes that it was inevitable that even Bob would eventually don Santa’s hat someday, too. One can only hope that Dylan finds the time to explore the deep faith of his own roots, and offers the same respect to a collection of those songs some day, too. In the meantime, one can either turn to Christmas in the Heart as a welcome respite, a pleasant surprise, and an alternative to the avalanche of old and tired holiday music which suffocate the airways during December or, one could just drive by and wave to Bob on the side of the road.