If anybody has earned the right to do whatever he wants, it’s Bob Dylan. Thirty Eight albums in and a lifetime of songwriting he chooses to continue his exploration of the great American songbook with this overlong instalment. An edited single disc or maybe even a double but a triple?
Let’s get one thing straight, it’s quite a commitment to listen to so much music in one sitting for any artist but with Bob’s voice threatening to go off key at any time, it really is an exercise in faith. Triplicate is arranged in three separate volumes Til the Sun Goes Down, Devil Dolls, and Comin’ Home Late and is perhaps best listened to not as a whole but as individual discs dependant on mood.
It starts slowly and the pace barely picks up through the three volumes with songs picked from the 30’s & 40’s, 50’s & 60’s. A good 3/4 of these songs start with a gentle guitar intro and are then smothered in waves of sentimental shimmering guitar and the odd burst of horns. The similarity of the arrangements and gruff vocal delivery do not make for a dynamic listen. When there are differences as in the cello intro to P.S. I Love You, the brooding horns of Stormy Weather or upbeat charmers The Best Is Yet To Come, Braggin and Day In, Day Out , they really stand out.
I’d love to hear an intimate piano arrangement of some of these works. In fact more often than not I could, as these tunes by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sammy Kahn and others are so well trodden that the internet is awash with recorded versions. So why is Bob Dylan bringing his gruff delivery to bear on these songs? At the time of 2015’s Shadows In The Night, Dylan stated his intentions to Rolling Stone. “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day”
Noble intentions but who is he trying to show these exhumed bodies too? The rest home circuit knows the originals already and would find his voice not as good as Sinatra, Armstrong or Garland. (Imagine Dylan and band doing a tour of rest homes forcing fans to visit their relatives to hear the great man!!) Middle aged Dylan fans? Well if they are like me, these songs remind me too much of my parents to make me want to listen too often and I recognise most of them as the kind of thing I rebelled against. Young people, who have never heard of these songs? Not enough beats, breakdowns, and loops to distract them from their short, shiny, hook-laden singles I suspect. Critics? God, I hope not and it would seem unlikely give the history of putdowns in his back catalogue.
So that leaves either an artistic intention that “everybody needs to know these songs” which isn’t too far from “The old songs are the best” and/ or pure indulgence. Listening to this album sounds like an old uncle who is sitting with you on the porch seat on a warm summer evening, trying to convince you that there is nothing new under the sun by playing you some of the classics.
It used to be that Dylan would write songs in the style of a particular music he admired and those attempts to write modern classics that were imbued with traditional musical influences is a common feature of all his work. Here he is presenting other peoples writing and it feels more of an intellectual exercise than a musical performance. Triplicate is interesting but not necessarily always enjoyable and I would be hard pressed to choose to listen to all 30 tracks from start to finish anytime soon. Instead, it makes me want to plead with the music gods. “Please let Bob Dylan write some more songs of his own before it’s too late”