Holiday Horrors: Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart

In Scratchbomb days of yore, I used to write one post around this time every year about terrible holiday garbage. I actually love the holidays and many holiday-related things, but there are certain aspects of it that cut through me like a knife. Only a few of them are Lexus ads.

This year, I realized there’s so much hideousness to go around that I could do a post a day until Xmas covering bad holiday junk. Kind of like an Advent calendar of hate. Today’s inaugural entry: Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart.

I’ve softened in my opinion of Robert Zimmerman over the years. Time was, I reflexively hated him because I lumped him in with hippies (who I still think are some of the worst human beings on the planet) and dismissed him without actually having heard much of his music. But then I wound up listening to other artists who love him, so I eventually came to respect him as a songwriter and personality. He’s one of those rare artists who gets to do whatever he wants, and has little or no interest in anyone else’s opinion of his work (see also: Neil Young).

But even if a person is a genius, that doesn’t mean everything they’ve done is a genius product. Dylan has issued a few clunkers in his career (Self Portrait, the out-of-nowhere born again albums). And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but he’s gotten a little weird lately.

First it was the creepy Victoria’s Secret ads, with Dylan leering at lingerie models around corners. Then came his oppressively literal XM Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, in which he simply played songs relating to one theme or another. This year, he launched an odd, OCD-inspired tour in which he only played minor league baseball stadiums.

Based on his recent career decisions, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that Dylan’s latest quest is to become a sort of Leon Redbone/Tom Waits hybrid. Playing vaguely old timey music in a fedora and suit while sporting a John Waters mustache, cultivating a disheveled, semi-inebriated persona. His arrest in Long Branch this past summer after being mistaken for a vagrant was in line with this theory.

What really convinced me that Dylan was headed in this direction was his recently-released holiday album, Christmas in the Heart. To be fair, they’re certainly not the worst Christmas songs I’ve ever heard, and 100% of Dylan’s album royalties go toward world hunger-related charities, so at least it was done for a good cause.

But I would contend that no artist as respected and worshiped as Dylan has put out such a Monkey Wrench Album as this one. A Monkey Wrench Album is a collection fans have to convince themselves is worthy among placement with his best work. At least the aforementioned clunkers have their partisans or defenders. Now, Dylan apologists have the unenviable task of trying to place Christmas in the Heart alongside Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde.

Have you heard Bruce Springsteen’s hideous song “Outlaw Pete” from his last album? Imagine an entire album of that, with Dust Bowl instrumentation, and you’ve got Christmas in the Heart. Add in Dylan’s reedy, scraggly voice and you’ve got good ol’ fashioned nightmare fuel. With Dylan’s pipes, it doesn’t matter what he’s actually saying; he’ll always sound like he wants you to get in the back of his van. The weirdest part of it is, I think that’s exactly what he wants to sound like. And why not? He’s really good at it.

The video for “Must Be Santa ” should give you an idea of the album’s aesthetic. When you go to a holiday party at Dylan’s house (which, on the inside, vaguely resembles the Parkers’ house in A Christmas Story), make sure to show up in your finest Jazz Age duds. Also know that some guy will start a fight, throw crystal at people, swing on a chandelier, and throw himself out a window. All while Dylan himself appears and disappears at will, looking like a more decrepit version of Eric Stoltz in True Romance.

But keep in mind, this is easily–easily–the best song on the album. For its true horror, you have to delve into tracks like “Here Comes Santa Claus”, given sinister new meaning by Dylan’s ruined croak. And when he sings “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, I imagine he’s saying it to distract you while he clubs you in the back of the head and drags you into a ditch.

Look: Dylan’s an icon and, again, this album is totally for charity. But his voice on these songs is like wrapping a candy cane in razor wire and shoving it down your ear canal. The only reason this album hasn’t zipped onto the top of my Holiday Hate List is because it’ll help alleviate world hunger. Not just through the funds it raises, but because it will also nauseate everyone forced to hear it.