Like a holiday gift from an outlaw uncle or a grenade dropped into a mantelpiece stocking, Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart arrives to challenge pop-music purists and Dylan's rep as a perennial pioneer. Some listeners will want to pat the singer on the back--hard, so he can cough up whatever it is that makes him sound like a tubercular hobo who's wandered into a karaoke bar at Yuletide. Others will wonder what statement Dylan, a Jew who for a while declared himself a born-again Christian, is making with a 15-song bag of Christmas chestnuts, sleigh bells and baby Jesuses. Is the album desecration or sellout or, just possibly, heartfelt homage?
Bet on homage. From his early covers of Woody Guthrie ballads to his current stint as a satellite-radio DJ, Dylan has been as much an innovator as an advocate for American musical tradition. For Dylan and any other kid growing up in the 1940s and '50s, Christmas songs as interpreted by Bing Crosby and his fellow crooners were folk music. These new versions of such pop classics as "Silver Bells" and "The Christmas Song" may alternate between croaks and moos, but they're reminders that a Christmas LP was a rite of passage into the mainstream for early rockers like Elvis Presley and Phil Spector. Dylan, who is donating all his royalties to Feeding America and other antihunger initiatives, just waited till his 50th year as a professional troubadour to pay his obeisance to these finely crafted kitsch touchstones.
As Crosby and Presley did, Dylan ranges from pop songs to traditional hymns. His perky take on "Here Comes Santa Claus" is scrupulously close to the Gene Autry original. "Winter Wonderland" comes with pedal guitar and cooing girl backup group. He does "O Come All Ye Faithful" in its English and Latin readings (including the approved Anglican hard g's for "regem angelorum"). "Must Be Santa" turns the rollicking polka into a frantic, very klezmer Christmas.
Many will still wonder if Dylan is kidding--and that's as engaging and fruitless a question as whether a Coen brothers movie is a parable or a joke. (Those Jewish kids from Minnesota ...) But for an artist whose motives always keep his fans guessing, Dylan seems on the level here. When he warbles, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas now," he pitches it with a sincerity that could warm Scrooge's heart.