Arriving more than a month before Thanksgiving, the de facto start of the Christmas season, Christmas in the Heart comes off as something of an oddity, a feeling not lessened by the fact that this is a Bob Dylan Christmas album. Apparently aware of this incongruity, as he seems to be about every eccentric move he makes, Dylan plays up the weirdness, distorting his already raspy voice for twistedly ragged renditions of holiday standards.
There’s no tremendous sense of exploration on any of these arrangements, meaning that they settle into the kind of creaky fireside ambiance that fits the season. “Do You Hear What I Hear” adds some welcome ornamental touches but retains the martial drumbeat usually associated with the song. “Winter Wonderland,” with its sprightly girl-group backing, has a weird lack of focus that hops between the Andrews Sisters’s version of the song and various Supremes Christmas songs before settling into a country twang polished with slide guitar. He also takes on the Andrews Sisters’s “Christmas Island,” which, though not a classic for a reason, has a half-familiar shine that makes it an interesting choice.
This enjoyable sense of exploration, which prizes levity in a genre that usually amounts to an artistic wasteland, is invaluable. It also proves how much life is left in the songs, and how much other artists have succeeded at butchering them (Rod Stewart comes to mind). It’s not hard to imagine a few of these versions sneaking in with the Burl Ives and Bing Crosby classics that define the season. And there’s the added bonus of Dylan’s voice, which he wittily exaggerates to a creepy level, almost emulating a scratchy Tom Waits growl. Profoundly weird but still cozy, Christmas in the Heart paints an appealing holiday picture: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost scratching at your ears.