The Dylan Strikes Back
I’d thought I’d be able to give Bob Dylan’s new album a good long listen and then perhaps write my two bits about it in this instalment of DC. Tempest, Dylan’s 35th album, came out on September 11; I managed to get hold of it a couple of days later but before I could properly listen to it, the deadline of this column was upon me (Brunch goes to press really early in the week and its editor is quite a strict disciplinarian when it comes to deadlines). I don’t know about you but I just can’t casually listen to any of Dylan’s albums, particularly a brand new one from a living legend who is now 71. Dylan’s isn’t by any stretch ambient music. It requires focused listening.
To do that you need time and last week was an unbelievably frazzling one, which left little time for indulging in uninterrupted music listening sessions. I did hear Tempest in snatches, watched the somewhat disturbing video by Nash Edgerton (a film director who has also been a stuntman in the Star Wars series) for one of the songs on the album, Duquesne Whistle, which, incidentally, is the only song on the album that Dylan collaborated with a co-writer to write. The rest are all his own efforts. The collaborator for Duquesne Whistle is Robert Hunter, poet, songwriter and, famously, the late Jerry Garcia’s song-writing collaborator. Hunter has worked with Dylan before. The two co-wrote a couple of songs in the late 1980s and most of the songs on Together Through Life, a 2009 Dylan album that, frankly, I haven’t really gone back to too many times, were co-written by Hunter.
Tempest—or what little I’ve heard till now—is an album that may stand out among Dylan’s recent ones. His voice is as craggy as ever, only now you’ve sort of got used to it and want it that way. The songs on Tempest have wry and angry lyrics and are sometimes quite brutal yet in a benign sort of way. There are some epic songs on it too. A 14-minute song on the sinking of the Titanic, a part fiction, part fact account, and in whose lyrics Leo Di Caprio too features. But as I said, I’ve only speed-heard Dylan’s latest in a week, shamefully, marked by casual and distracted listening. So it wouldn’t be fair to say too much about the album.
But Dylan crept in in other ways last week. On a particularly slow commute to work, I found on an old and neglected iPod a two-disc ‘soundtrack’ of the Dylan inspired 2007 film I’m Not There, in which Dylan doesn’t appear but is depicted by six leading actors, including Cate Blanchett. I wrote ‘soundtrack’ in single quotation marks because it isn’t one in the strictest sense. You can hear snatches of the songs on the film but not all of each or even all of them, and all of them (except one that was sung by Dylan himself) are covers by others. I think it is the most perfect covers album that pays a tribute to Dylan.
A wide range of contemporary musicians have done Dylan covers on I’m Not There but some are really outstanding. Nearly all the covers on I’m Not There are excellent but I’d plump for some of my favourite singers: Eddie Vedder’s All Along the Watchtower, Sonic Youth’s I’m Not There, Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus’s Ballad of a Thin Man, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on Simple Twist of Faith, my lo-fi heroes Yo La Tengo doing I Wanna Be Your Lover, Malkmus again on Maggie’s Farm and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James doing a fab version of Goin’ To Acapulco. But one cover I like the most: Cat Power doing her version of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. So different from how she covered other people’s songs in her own albums, The Covers Record or Jukebox, where sometimes you can hardly recognise the original. On I’m Not There, her version of Stuck Inside is authentic and riveting.
Talking about Cat Powers, I’d mentioned her new album Sun here last week. In all of last week’s distraction-laden music listening, I’ve been going back to Sun several times. It’s a great record. And, again, at the risk of being presumptuous, based on what little I’ve managed to absorb of Tempest, I think the new Dylan record is also going to demand repetitive spins.
After getting re-hooked to the genre via Keith Jarrett’s new and hitherto unreleased live album, Sleeper, I’m sniffing around for new jazz. And last week I discovered an ensemble called Endangered Blood from Brooklyn, New York. A quartet that channels funk, bebop and even New Orleans funeral marching bands, the two saxes (a clarinet sometimes), bass and drum combo began playing benefit gigs for an ill friend but has blossomed into a full-fledged band. I am yet to lay my hands on their eponymous debut album but there’s a concert on NPR that is simply super.