If you’re scratching your head at the idea of this legendarily iconoclastic Jewish-turned-fundamentalist-Christian-turned-who-knows-what songwriter (with one of the unloveliest singing voices around) recording a Christmas album, look at it this way: Dylan loves the dusty old fairgrounds of the Great American Songbook, and the carefully crafted songwriting era that ended around the time he started making records. Dylan loves hokum and corniness and schmaltz. He usually puts quotation marks around them in his own work, but he’s always admired songs that tug at the heartstrings. And what Dylan loves most of all is flying directly in the face of whatever he’s expected to do. At this point, what could be more iconoclastic for him than crooning “Little Drummer Boy”?
Assuming you can accept its premise — Grizzled Old Beloved Entertainer in a Santa Claus suit — Christmas in the Heart is a hoot, mostly because Uncle Bob is clearly grinning from one edge of his fake beard to the other. He sounds like he’s about to burst into giggles when he rasps verses of “Silver Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” that everyone else has forgotten. And he’s pulled up a fantastic selection of songs (to win friends and influence elderly relatives), including a handful of ace obscurities, like the Hawaiian novelty “Christmas Island.” The album’s highlight is “Must Be Santa,” with its whirlwind polka arrangement based on Brave Combo’s rendition. The album’s effectively a Christmas-themed episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” program, performed entirely by the man himself.