Creating a covers record is necessarily a challenging endeavor. How do you reproduce someone else’s work in a manner that is original when it is, by nature, predetermined? In the act of recording a covers record, the artist indicates an interest in the quality of someone else’s prior work, while simultaneously stating their desire to add a personal touch…something the original did not itself contain. The exercise is made all the more difficult when covering someone whose music is as well-known and loved as Bob Dylan’s.
The artists featured on this collaboration, the accompaniment to Todd Haynes film of the same title, have all tackled this difficult task. Overall, the double-disc record succeeds on account of simplicity. The artists do not attempt to rewrite the songs or to “revitalize” them. These songs don’t need saving. But neither do any of these artists, all well-resumed creators in their own right, attempt to mimic Dylan. Robert Zimmerman is not the one singing or performing the songs on this record, that is for sure (with the exception of the last track of disc two, the previously-unreleased “I’m Not There” by Bob Dylan and The Band). Instead, most of the artists on this record attempt to faithfully reproduce Dylan’s masterpieces on their own.
The only cohesive sense one can have when listening to this record is to be overwhelmed with the appreciation that the artists (a veritable who’s-who of modern indie rockers) have for one of the most eminent American musicians of all time. As a result, I’m Not There is ultimately an attestation of Dylan’s brilliance, rather than an introspective exploration of the individual artists’ own impressions of Dylan’s work.
In a formulaic sense, some of the most notable tracks are nearly identical to the originals. Hearing them rendered by someone other than Dylan, however, allows the listeners to fully appreciate once more the power of the music. John Doe’s version of “Pressing On” is a prime example of this overarching faithfulness: Nearly indistinguishable from Dylan’s version on his record Saved, from the quiet organ to the backing choir, John Doe imbues his listeners with an appreciation for the transforming experience Bob Dylan had in the evangelical movement during the late â€˜70s. You can almost hear him working, sweating, and trying to do what’s right.
Another lurid example is Mark Lanegan’s version of “Man in the Long Black Coat,” one of the most chilling tracks on the record. It perfectly demonstrates the power an expertly-executed cover can wield. Again, this version is quite similar to Dylan’s, but hearing the song from Lanegan’s haunting voice almost incidentally adds a sense of foreboding. It’s reminiscent of Tom Waits and Neil Young’s earlier work, without even trying. Lanegan isn’t showing off, he’s just singing one of his favorite Dylan songs, and the sense it conveys only goes to show how universal Dylan’s music truly is.
The other tracks generally reflect this reverent faithfulness, even down to similar enunciation of certain phrases (Cat Power’s rendition of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”). Sufjan Stevens’ “Ring Them Bells” is the only glaring departure from the rest of the record in this sense. On that track, Sufjan garishly proves just how ill-suited his own carefully-cultivated sound is to a Dylan song. Thankfully, this unfortunate attempt is the strict exception.
Other personal favorites on this record include the sultry “Just Like a Woman” by Charlotte Gainsbourg (who also appears in the film in the “role” of Sara Lowndes Dylan), “One More Cup of Coffee” by Roger McGuinn, “Senor” by Willie Nelson, “Cold Irons Bound” by Tom Verlaine, and “Moonshiner” by Bob Forrest. Ultimately, the beauty of this record is its refusal to allow legendary music to be sidetracked by its new performers. Instead, it rightfully holds its unblinking focus on Bob Dylan.
Shant Boyajian is a student at Rutgers-Camden School of Law.
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