In popular music, it is quite exciting whenever an important artist re-invents him or herself. Now that I wrote that sentence I am struggling to come up with any besides Bob Dylan and David Bowie (BD and DB?), but I’m sure there are more. Many of us have written about how much Van Morrison’s music has meant to us. Most have also picked out time periods of Van’s vast discography that meant more, possibly due to “coming on board” during the time of those albums. I submit to you the thesis that Mr. Morrison, however wonderful he may be, has never really changed his musical direction very much. Therefore, everyone eventually tends to get a little bored with his output.
Bob Dylan, on the other hand, has a habit of re-inventing himself every now and again, and just when his legion of fans thinks, “this is it”, he’ll go and do it again. Those thoughts come more and more the older he gets, now in his mid-70s. A few years ago to the surprise (I think) of all of us, he released Shadows in the Night. Ten songs from “The Great American Songbook”, all sung by Frank Sinatra during his career. Sinatra is even listed as the co-writer of the first cut on the album, “I’m a Fool to Want You”. I do not think I’m going out on a limb to say that pretty much everyone considered this album an odd anomaly along the lines of the Christmas disc from a few years previous. Then the very next year we got Fallen Angels, with eleven of the twelve tracks sung previously by Sinatra. I dutifully bought both of the CDs as released, as I have done with all of his studio albums since around Empire Burlesque, which probably coincides with the first time I saw him in concert.
Everyone took a breath, and wondered, “What the hell is going on?” Some said it aloud. Unlike most other artists, Dylan gives no feedback (in this way, Van Morrison is just the same). The albums are released, the critics gush, and he tours and sings the songs. He never really makes any statements, does any press, has anything to say about why he might make any sort of move. Years will sometimes pass and he eventually does an interview (famously on 60 Minutes about a decade ago), and he will just circle around the questions in an obstinate manner. Answering them in his own way, which usually boils down to something along the lines of “the music takes me where I go, it’s all about the music, why would anyone want me to comment on any of this when you can just listen to the music?” Amusing and annoying at the same time. I’m not sure Van Morrison has even said that much, but perhaps he throws a bone to the press in Belfast, as Dylan occasionally does here.
But back to the music! I am a big fan of “The Great American Songbook”, and for instance those five (yes, five) Rod Stewart CDs are guilty pleasures of mine. I love to drive in my car listening to these songs, whether it is Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, and now Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan. So what makes Dylan different from all of those other people? His voice. And what is the first reaction to any sane music fan when confronted with now five (yes, five) discs of GASB music from him? Why? How? Won’t he sound terrible? For those of you less interested in this sort of thing than people like me (and Mac), Triplicate is a three-disc set. Each disc has 10 songs, and runs exactly 32 minutes. So put that together with Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, and we have the aforementioned five (yes, five), just like Rod Stewart. Did he want to match Rod? Does he want to make more? Who knows?
I really like all five, and I think his voice is sort of terrific for these songs. Dylan visited Mobile last November, and I was curious what he would do. This was before the release of Triplicate, but nonetheless his previous two albums were standards. Would he dare play an entire concert of them? The two albums together would be 22 songs, your average amount played at a live show. He put on what I thought was a great show; there were three songs from Shadows, two from Fallen, and one other “I Could Have Told You”, that ended up on Triplicate. The rest of the show was heavy on Tempest, and then a scattering of earlier songs.
There is the school of thought that you go to a concert of a classic rock icon in order to hear your favorite songs. Although I understand that thinking, I really prefer my rock n’ roll heroes to continue to be productive and roll out new songs. Especially in the case of someone whose voice has changed so much in the past fifty years, you will inevitably be unhappy with the way your favorite song from the 1960s now sounds. However, I have seen Dylan at least twelve times, so that forms my expectations perhaps a little differently.
The reason I like these albums, and Triplicate is my favorite of the three, is twofold. First, I think Dylan does an amazing job interpreting these songs with his craggy old vocal chords. You can tell he is very familiar with them, he has lived them, and in many cases listening to the lyrics, they are better sung the way he does it. Not all songs are meant to sound bright and chipper. If you remember the famous Frank Sinatra versions of “The September of My Years”, or “Once Upon a Time” he did the same, the context of the verses should be reflected by the singer. When the lyrics are light (and as I look at the 30 songs I don’t see too many of those), the accompanying music speeds up, and Dylan’s voice attempts to reach a higher pitch to match. In reference to the music (and, secondly), all of these songs star Dylan’s travelling band (Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier, et al), with of course added musicians as needed. I do not think this is a normal thing for big stars to do, but since he has The Never-Ending Tour always going on, it is a little easier to keep the guys together. They are great, they do a fabulous job, and this is most likely not an easy thing for rock musicians to do – slow things down and let the music live with the song and its lyrics.
I have written enough. Here are some YouTube videos of favorites, but they are all good!
“Once Upon a Time”
--Stu Moore is a proud member of the alt-left, but he doesn’t like to be in crowds, so his membership is lapsing.