’Tis the season of goodwill and cheer, but not many listeners over the past decade have found sufficient reserves of either to forgive Bob Dylan’s 2009 seasonal offering Christmas in the Heart. A sign of the Great American Songbook albums he had yet to record, Dylan delivers his cantankerous brand of easy listening that is hard to listen to like some kind of post-apocalyptic Cringe Crinkle.
The opening bells of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ signal at once that Dylan’s Christmas album is going to be a joyously traditional — and traditionally joyous — take on the genre; closer to Elvis’s Christmas Album and Johnny Cash’s The Christmas Spirit than to, say, A John Prine Christmas or Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow. The idea behind the album was to take the best known Christmas songs and just play them straight, with no irony or new angle:
Isn’t there enough irreverence in the world? Who would need more? Especially at Christmas time.
The thought melts away like snow at first sight of the album’s artwork. In the Guardian’s review, the cover illustration was characterised as a conventional ‘painting of a horse-drawn carriage speeding through snowdrifts’. But I defy anyone to stare at this Victorian sleigh image (sourced by the Grammy award-winning artist Coco Shinomiya) and not see it as a супер-Stalinist vision of the winter season.
Turn the page and you find a confounding cheesecake portrait (by self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ artist and Hugh Heffner collaborator Olivia De Beradini) of the notoriously exploited Bettie Page. The image, which is omitted from the vinyl edition (though the credit for it remains), pictures Page in a gartered Santa suit, holding a little Saint Nick homunculus. Like Dylan, Page had an ever evolving image; departing from the spotlight and converting to evangelical Christianity at a high point in her career, then fading away into near obscurity before making an inadvertent comeback in the 1980s (during a period in which Dylan’s own career had begun to thaw). But while Bob’s conversion spawned a Grammy-winning single and is now the subject of a Deluxe box set, things didn’t pan out quite so well for Bettie; she suffered years of depression and paranoid schizophrenia before dying in December 2008, just months before Dylan began his festive recording.