Sincerity — that’s Bob Dylan’s present to you on his first-ever Christmas album. Based on a preview of six tracks from Christmas in the Heart — a set of traditional hymns and popular holiday songs to be released October 13th — held at the Sony Music offices this week, Dylan truly means it when he gets to the famous closing line of “The Christmas Song,” co-written by singer Mel Tormé and first cut in 1946 by Nat King Cole: “Although it’s been said many times many ways, Merry Christmas to you.” Against a restrained country-saloon-band arrangement, Dylan’s dirt-road larynx smooths out into a low warming tenor wishing you the top o’ the season.
Dylan produced the album under his pseudonym Jack Frost (very appropriate this time around) and recorded it with his touring band and some guests, including male and female chorales and Los Lobos accordionist David Hidalgo, who played all over Dylan’s last album, Together Through Life. The accordion is, in fact, the driving instrument on “Must Be Santa,” which Dylan takes at hyper-polka speed, with a spiked-eggnog exuberance in the backing vocals. “The Little Drummer Boy” combines the dusted-roots quality of Together Through Life and the haunted flair of his 1989 album, Oh Mercy, with prominent drum rolls and a wall of singing angels behind him. The Jordanaires-like male harmonies in “Here Comes Santa Claus” add some holiday Elvis to the barn-dance gait. A long Hawaiian steel-guitar flourish starts the palm trees swaying in “Christmas Island,” and Dylan puts extra church in “O Come All Ye Faithful” by singing the first verse in the original Latin (“Adeste fideles . . .”).
Dylan, who opens a fall U.S. tour October 4th in Seattle, recently completed a video for “Must Be Santa” and is hoping Christmas in the Heart will be a gift that keeps on giving. He has pledged all of his American royalties from the record, now and forever, to Feeding America, a program that provides meals for the hungry. Proceeds from overseas sales will go to international charities.