"Does anybody recognise this painting? Any theories as to what it means?" Rolling Stone's Andy Greene is looking at a picture of a middle-aged couple on a sleigh. It's snowy and old-fashioned, like a church basement greeting card priced at 25p. Perhaps it's a passive-aggressive warning to climate-change deniers of the catastrophic consequences of polluting the world: ice caps will melt, global temperatures will rise, and good ol' fashioned scenes like this will cease to be. Or maybe it signifies the post-apocalyptic winter that awaits us all, should war ever go nuclear. My "theory", though, is that this "painting" -- the cover image of Bob Dylan's forthcoming charity album, Christmas in the Heart -- just means "Christmas".
The bookies at Ladbrokes reckon that Dylan has a 25/1 chance of winning this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. With Grammies, an Oscar and even an honorary Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Zimmy (as he suggested we call him in "Gotta Serve Somebody") is one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. And with good reason, too, in my book. When he's on form, he writes lines like: "It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey,/A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet." His output may be inconsistent, but his influence on culture is undeniable, with even the Beatles placing him on a pedestal at the height of their success.
Some people however take him too seriously. A few days ago (23 September), the second annual Uncut Music Award announced its longlist of the year's best albums. It's a predictable bunch -- new records by Wilco, Arctic Monkeys and Smog's Bill Callahan -- but perhaps the most obvious inclusion of all was Dylan's Together Through Life, which received a five-star review at the time of its release. The second collaboration between Dylan and the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter (the first was 1988's dubious Down in the Groove), it's a solid set that sits comfortably among the roots-revival records Dylan has been knocking out since 1992's Good As I Been to You. Songs like the Tex-Mex ballad "This Dream of You" and the optimistic "I Feel a Change Comin' On" are some of his best in recent years. But five stars? Together Through Life is the sound of Dylan in the rec room, letting his frizzy hair down. Over half the album -- knocked out loaded, partly at the request of the film-maker Olivier Dahan for use on a soundtrack -- is little more than filler, enjoyable though it is.
This year, CUP published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. With the annual calls for the Nobel Prize to be awarded to Dylan, the tome's publication marked yet another attempt by learned Bob fans to give their hero some kind of high-culture legitimacy, above and beyond the respect he already has as a rock star.
But I'm curious how future academics will fit Christmas in the Heart into their critical discourse. The album, all profits of which will go to the World Food Programme, is an old-timey collection of festive songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Beyond the curious fact that Dylan has managed to announce a record featuring Jesus in every song without the critics batting an eyelid (as they did during his notorious, though underrated, gospel period), it's a straightforward feast of harmony vocals and lush, brassy arrangements. From the audio samples I've heard, it sounds like a glorious mess, though many fans are evidently appalled. On the Expecting Rain web forum, Bennyboy describes it as "pure evil in sound form". Nehemiah thinks it's "hilariously awful", asking: "How can this not be a joke?" Isa, meanwhile, is more despondent: "God, now I feel the shame."
I think Nehemiah has the right attitude. I'll probably enjoy the album, but then again, I like Self Portrait, Shot of Love and even Dylan, often described as his career nadir. Even in Dylan's best songs, it's not hard to find a few bad lines, and this lack of consistency is partly what has kept him so interesting over many decades. Some of his albums are great, others are terrible, but even his worst recordings contain flashes of brilliance. So how does the committed fan cope with such ups and downs? By asking, in the truly bad times, "How can this not be a joke?" At least then you get to laugh along.