So it should be stated right upfront that this album isn't gonna' be for everybody. In fact, for most people, the verdict on Bob Dylan's first-ever collection of Christmas tunes is probably going to come down to which side of a central question you are on.
That would be "The Croak."
"The Croak," for those not already in the know, is the ragged, Tom Waits-like tone and quality Dylan's voice has taken on with all of his albums this decade, dating back to at least Time Out Of Mind. Some people love it, while it makes others cringe.
As for me? I love "The Croak."
So the only real question for me going into this album was, will the harsh, sandpaper-on-cigarettes quality of Dylan's voice that works so well on a song like, say, "Thunder On The Mountain," sound appropriate on something like "Hark The Herald Angels Sing"?
And on that particular song, the answer is no, it really doesn't. The reason has more to do with the arrangement than it does with anything else though.
One of the reasons Dylan's voice works so well with his own recent songs is because when he sings something with the fire and brimstone lyrical imagery of "Thunder On The Mountain," "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," or even "Aint Talkin'," the apocalyptic world-weariness in his voice is a perfect match to the subject matter. Dylan also is a master of phrasing, so in his own songs every double-phrased or twisted syllable adds just that much more dramatic emphasis to the words.
On "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," as with the other songs on Christmas In The Heart, Dylan however plays it completely straight. The arrangements are as traditional as a holiday card from Hallmark, and likewise there are no twists of phrase in the vocal delivery. So, in the case of "Hark," this only serves to illustrate the fact that he just can't hit the notes.
Even so, and putting that little bump on the road to grandma's house aside (strictly in the interest of fairness of course), on much of the rest of this album Dylan does just fine.
Christmas In The Heart begins with sleigh bells — Sleigh Bells, for crying out loud! But by the time you hear Dylan, in all of his croaking glory sing "Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus!," you really can't help yourself from cracking up. Or, at least I couldn't.
Elsewhere, on songs like "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" (complete with the most syrupy sounding female backup vocals you're likely to hear this side of the Lennon Sisters on the old Lawrence Welk Show), Dylan's croak substitutes for Crosby-esque croon surprisingly well.
And for the record, no, he doesn't tackle "White Christmas." Dylan always was a smart sumbitch'. Elsewhere, Dylan's take on "Must Be Santa" borders on beer-barrel polka, while he offers up surprisingly credible versions of such traditional fare as "Little Drummer Boy" and "Silver Bells."
So it's an acquired taste to be sure. But since Dylan's doing this album for charity — all present and future royalties from the CD will go to the hunger fighting folks at Feeding America — I'm willing to cut him a break here. Besides, the CD actually isn't that bad, and in some cases ("Here Comes Santa Claus" for example) is actually pretty damn hilarious.
Just make sure that you dig "the croak."