By Brian Wise.
BOB DYLAN – TRIPLICATE (COLUMBIA)
What is this shit? asked Greil Marcus in his review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait in 1970. Some fans might be asking the same question of Triplicate. Where that early album saw Dylan mainly saluting other writers (including Paul Simon) on 16 of its 24 tracks, the new triple-disc project sees him paying homage to some of the great writers of the 1930s and 40s. This makes five albums of covers in a row which might be understandable for a singer who does not write but is extraordinary for someone who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
At the time of Fallen Angels last year, I offered the observation that Dylan was paying tribute to his childhood and youth by reviving some of his favourite songs as he had done on its predecessor Shadows In The Night. The tribute has now turned into a five-album project! By a strange coincidence, Rod Stewart recorded the same number of Great American Songbook albums destroying some of the same songs in the process. Stewart also released albums of rock and soul classics and, while one might question their value, every single album made the Top 5, selling millions and making Stewart one of the most successful artists of the past two decades. There is no justice in this world, is there?
While some die-hard fans will suggest that Dylan can do anything he likes now and that he does not have to prove anything to anyone, one suspects that there is something else at work. The songs chosen for Dylan’s journey through the past come from an era in which there were songwriters (or teams of them) and singers who interpreted the songs. No-one expected Frank Sinatra to write any songs they just reveled in his ability to interpret the music and the words of others. Who needed to write anyway when you had some of the greatest of all time on which to rely. Even in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll the Brill Building writers were predominant until Dylan himself and the Beatles came along and everyone thought that they had to be songwriters.
No doubt many of the songs on Triplicate, as on the preceding two albums, meant a lot to Dylan who would have been listening to them on the radio as he grew up in an era when songs marked the important events in our lives and when music meant so much more to us. Reflecting on the past we invariably connect the music to our most significant moments, simply because music meant so much more then and we were not drowned in sound and other distractions.
Dylan’s latest project is hardly likely to sell in massive quantities, especially given that it is a triple album set; however, its predecessors did surprisingly well. As I was in the store purchasing Triplicate (which also comes in a deluxe vinyl version) a young salesperson started telling me how good Shadows In The Night was and how I needed to listen to it late at night. He laughed when I asked if you needed to be smoking something to fully appreciate it. Maybe Dylan is now big with the hipsters. But he is right, listening to these discs in the quiet of the late evening is like watching an old black and white movie such as Casablanca. The fact that the songs are from a distant era adds to the charm.
While one can understand someone such as Stewart turning to cover versions – and plenty of other mainstream artists overseas and here have done likewise – it is a little more difficult to comprehend why one of the world’s greatest songwriters feels the need to do so.
It is probably relevant to turn to Dylan’s own words to explain his decision to interpret another 30 ‘classic’ songs across three individually titled 32-minute discs recorded with his touring band (and guitarist Dean Parks) at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios: ‘Til The Sun Goes Down, Devil Dolls and Comin’ Home Late.
“These songs are meant for the man on the street, the common man, the everyday person. Maybe that is a Bob Dylan fan, maybe not, I don’t know,” Dylan told Bill Flanagan in a long interview (that you can find at bobdylan.com).
“I hadn’t realised how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition,” he continued, “how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”
“These songs are some of the most heart-breaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice,” adds Dylan of a collection that includes ‘Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler), ‘As Time Goes By’ (Herman Hupfield) made famous in the film Casablanca, Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’ and other by famous songwriters such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jimmy Van Heusen, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn and Jerome Kern. These were some of the greatest names in music in the 1930s and 1940s. (Strangely, there are no song writing credits in the CD version).
“Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better,” explained Dylan. “They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.”
For Dylan, this is a sentimental journey (to cite one of the song titles) and he treats the songs with utter respect. As on this collection’s predecessors he is singing close to the microphone and creates an extraordinarily intimate sound.
“It’s a live recording,” he explained to Bill Flanagan. “My voice cracking here or there just might mean it was recorded too early in the day, but it doesn’t hurt the overall effect, it wouldn’t bother me.”
Don Was has worked with Dylan and played on Frank Sinatra’s final concert and last tear when I interviewed him in New Orleans he recalled that event.
“His voice was, from a technical standpoint, his voice was shot,” said Was of Sinatra. “From a charisma and interpretive power standpoint, he was amazing. He came out and he did, ‘I Got The World On A String.’ It was just awesome. He retained interpretive powers to the end. I think it would have been great to hear him sitting and just singing with the piano playing Hank Williams songs.”
Of Dylan, Was said, “I think he sounds great. It’s amazing the way he does it too. He goes in there, this time he added some horns. He’s got his band. No one wears head phones and there are just a few microphones. You have to balance yourselves and play really quietly. With a band that’s quiet Bob has more range because he doesn’t have to shout over a band. I love the way he’s singing these songs.”
“Dylan will do whatever he likes,” continued Was and talked about the time he and Dylan were intent on producing an album by Sinatra and this might be the key to Dylan’s latest projects.
“We tried,” admits Was. “We were going to do an album with Frank Sinatra singing Hank Williams songs. We didn’t get very far, but we tried. We made some calls. That was around the time that he did those duets albums, which did very well for him. We wanted to cut it in his living room. Just put a piano player and having him sing Hank Williams songs. I think it would have been amazing but …”
There you have it. Not being able to produce Sinatra, Dylan was obviously inspired to record this homage to the music made famous by Sinatra and his colleagues. The fact that Dylan has recorded the songs ensures that they will live on; in future, anyone examining the Dylan recorded catalogue will discover these classics and perhaps dust them off.
Of course, one of the most important elements of the recordings is Dylan’s finely-honed touring band which sounds superb, as you would expect, and is augmented by a small horn section. The production by Dylan himself echoes the warmth of the originals (without employing the string sections that most of them must have used).
Triplicate ends with the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II composition ‘Why Was I Born?,’ one of the many songs on the collection that ponders the meaning of time and life itself. No doubt these are concerns to the 75-year old Dylan. “Why am I living, what do I get, what am I giving?” he sings. “What can I hope for? I wish I knew.” Perhaps these songs have provided Dylan an answer.
Personally, I would be excited to learn that Dylan was recording some new songs of his own but in the meantime maybe I should take the advice of my young acquaintance and listen to Triplicate late at night with the lights down and just enjoy the ambience that Dylan creates.