“BEING NOTICED can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot,” said Bob Dylan.
I love when people compare themselves in some way to Jesus, or use a Hitler analogy as an attack. It rarely works.
However, I am not here to decipher what Dylan meant. Go through a collection of the singer/songwriter’s thoughts on anything, and you’ll find him at odds with himself over and over again. He’s lived long enough, achieved enough (including that recent Nobel Prize) to have the right to be contrary. Also, he’s an artist, so right there, a mass of contradictions.
What brings me to muse on Dylan today is his latest album, “Triplicate.” I read about it in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, written up by Mikal Gilmore.
Now Dylan’s been off my musical radar for years. He came to annoy me with his indistinct manner of singing. Time moved on. I stuck with his early work, confined a great deal to “Blonde on Blonde” and then the famous 1967 “Greatest Hits” album. That was my Dylan, the singer whose work was part of the collective cultural revolution of the era.
Of course, I knew he went on and on, to other great success, and fans remained fanatically loyal. I just didn’t pay much attention. (I’d go crazy watching him at award shows, garbling his lyrics in an aging voice, one that was never exactly a crystal clear instrument to begin with.)
So it came as a great surprise to me to read in Mr. Gilmore’s review of “Triplicate” that it was the third album in a row Dylan had released, singing songs performed and made famous by Frank Sinatra! I had no idea. The previous two were 2015’s “Shadow’s in the Night” and last year’s “Fallen Angels.”
The review was so well written, so comprehensive in its understanding of what Dylan had been doing, it made me curious. Curious enough to go to my favorite modern technology, You-Tube, to find some of the Dylan/Sinatra tunes.
So what did I find? Not Sinatra, obviously. But Dylan’s renditions of “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” “September of My Years,” “How Deep in the Ocean,” “All Or Nothing At All” and dozens more standards are moving, fascinating homage; and sung in a clearer stronger voice than I’d heard in years. Not young, still gravelly, still Dylan, but respectful of the lyrics.
In a way, it all reminded me of Billie Holiday’s final years, which culminated with the epic “Lady in Satin.” Holiday’s voice was gone, but the emotion and careful phrasing were never more potent. It helped that Holiday (like Dylan) had an unmistakable, but never “big,” sound. Their voices were always a little rough, not soaring. When voices decline they can actually become more valuable for conveying intimacy. Dylan’s doesn’t hit or float seamlessly over every note, but the meaning is there, a “majestic darkness,” as Gilmore puts it.
Now, how much time could I actually spend with Dylan as Sinatra? Being a huge admirer of Old Blue Eyes, especially his Capitol years, probably not much. But there’s artistry, love, nostalgia and respect in what Dylan is doing now. And, as Bob is now 75, why would anyone be surprised that he might want to lay down his versions of the music he grew up with? (I’ve come to learn many of his fans loathe the Sinatra albums as the last resort of aging singers — do the Great Songbooks and redeem yourself with those who never “got” you at the peak. Perhaps some artists do. I don’t think Dylan is one of them.)
To sum up — I’m glad I was initially struck by the Sinatraesque illustration of Dylan by Roberto Parada that accompanied the review. I noticed that first. Then I read. And you know what — one actually does learn something new, every single day.