By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
This Christmas season, parents will introduce their children to a legendary sage from northern climes renowned for his unsettling facial hair and unmistakable voice.
This man is, of course, Bob Dylan. His first-ever holiday album, "Christmas in the Heart," arrives today, with the 68-year-old ripping through a gaggle of jaunty Christmas carols as if they were so much gift wrap. From "Winter Wonderland" to "Silver Bells" to "First Noel," it's a bizarre and bewildering collection that, in many ways, embodies the rough-hewn traditionalism and forehead-slapping surrealism that's defined Dylan's career. The man's serrated croon isn't just jarring -- it actually gives these chirpy old chestnuts a sense of menace.
And it is awesome.
The arrangements on "Christmas in the Heart" are both overtly cheerful and staunchly by-the-numbers, making Dylan's beleaguered croak sound both maddening and sentimental, kinda like the Christmas season itself.
He throws down the gauntlet immediately with the twinkling pep of "Here Comes Santa Claus," one of the most annoying carols ever written. "Here comes Santa Claus/Here comes Santa Claus/Right down Santa Claus lane," Dylan rasps, making yuletide glee feel more like lunacy. "Must Be Santa" ramps up the insanity to even dizzier levels, with accordions moaning and cymbals crashing away at the speed of polka.
Where the faster carols feel crazed, the slower carols feel creepy. Dylan's guttural braying on "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" boggles the ears while the sparse "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sounds like a reason to bolt your doors.
Yet over the course of 15 songs, Dylan's huffing and puffing becomes familiar, almost meditative -- like a snowblower howling away on a December afternoon.
As odd as this album is, "Christmas in the Heart" launches Dylan into the rarefied pantheon of pop icons who've contributed truly memorable songs to our communal Christmas jukebox -- earning a spot next to the holiday heat of James Brown's "Funky Christmas" album and the dopey, electronic weirdness of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas." The album also places the Bard of Hibbing in the ranks of Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond -- other iconic Jewish-born singers with Christmas discs to their name. (Diamond's effort, while nowhere near as visceral, also drops today.)
So as the withering record industry prepares to unveil a sluice of Christmas albums in the coming weeks, don't let Dec. 25 pass you by without hearing Dylan's take on Mel Torme's beloved "Christmas Song."
As ever, chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost is nipping at your nose -- but this time, the man behind the microphone sounds as if he's trying to dislodge a piece of tinsel from his throat: "Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you."
It's never been said quite like this -- a true Christmas miracle.
Dylan performs at the Patriot Center on Nov. 11.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Must Be Santa," "Christmas Song"