It was 50 years ago that Bob Dylan released his debut album. In that time he has written what is arguably the most impressive and/or influential catalogue of songs by anyone, ever. That proposition becomes even more likely after listening to this 4-disc set of Dylan’s songs newly-recorded by a host of musicians.
The scope of artists contributing to this project ranges from the usual suspects (Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith) to Dylan’s contemporaries (Pete Townshend, Eric Burdon, Joan Baez) to young upstarts (Band Of Skulls, Airborne Toxic Event, Cage The Elephant) to crusty veterans (Sting, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson) to current superstars (Adele, Kesha, Miley Cyrus). There’s even a Kiwi…Neil Finn and Pajama Club) All told there are over 70 artists, plus one track by Dylan himself…his 1964 recording of Chimes Of Freedom.
With 73 tracks, this is an intimidating collection to take in. Most of the versions are fairly straight-up readings of the songs. Most of them are more recognizable than Dylan’s own, if you’ve heard him perform live recently.
The set starts off by reviving the great Johnny Cash whose version of One Too Many Mornings has been digitally married to new backing by The Avett Brothers. The result is seamless. There are several collaborations here…Paul Rodgers and Nils Lofgren team up for Abandoned Love (one of my favourite Dylan tunes), while Seal and Jeff Beck join forces on Like A Rolling Stone. Seal sounds rather bland, but Beck’s guitar livens the track up considerably.
A few of my favourite tracks are Pete Townshend’s Corrina, Corrina, Diana Krall’s Simple Twist Of Fate, Thea Gilmore’s I’ll Remember You, The Belle Brigade’s No Time To Think and Jack’s Mannequin’s Mr. Tambourine Man. I must say I enjoyed Miley Cyrus’ version of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.
Less successful are Mick Hucknall’s One Of Us Must Go (Sooner Or Later), Bettye Lavette’s Most Of The Time and Dave Matthews Band’s All Along The Watchtower. Hucknall sounds like a bad Dylan impersonator, Lavette oversings and Matthews is just plain annoying.
I particularly admire The Gaslight Anthem’s attempt to navigate their way through the very wordy Changing Of The Guards. It’s a tough song to pull off and they came out smelling like roses.
Rather than picking out individual track for praise or ridicule, this is a collection that succeeds because of its scope. All five decades of Dylan’s career are represented and every one of the 70-plus songs is amazing in one way or another. This is indeed a tribute to Dylan the songwriter. No matter who is singing, Dylan’s voice comes through. These are songs that have become part of anyone who has been passionate about music over the past half-century and hearing them again in this context just brings a smile to the face and then it’s off to hear Dylan’s own versions…again and again.
Click here to listen to Mr. Tambourine Man by Jack’s Mannequin: