Bob Dylan's Triplicate is his third tribute to old classic American songs: Read the review
Our unconditional love for Bob Dylan has always been contingent on his lyrical ability. Take this away, and he’s another rocker who doesn’t sing well. We would miss his blue eyes and the angle of his nose over his guitar and harmonica playing skills. Thus it upsets piety that his latest album is the third tribute to old classic American songs.
They are all predominantly ballads, with lyrics that are simple and corny, insipid and frivolous, made for Romeos and Valentine’s Days. You might have heard a song or two leaving grandma’s lips, from commendable swains, or in the milieu of a hotel lobby. Where is the voice of the counterculture, our passionate messiah?
Many artists have gotten around to tribute albums at the expense of their careers, or through the demands of their contracts. So many have covered his songs too, but Bob Dylan is no ‘puppet laureate’, as Robert Shelton says in his book No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. So before we tear it apart like the Maenads did Orpheus, it may be prudent to give these songs yet another listen.
It was a plucky and young Bob Dylan who pointed out a well-liked line from an earlier review during an interview for the Toronto Star Weekly in 1966 that his songs weren’t written in Tin Pan Alley — the music industry before the Sixties, a place where “fat guys chewing cigars and carrying gold records sold songs, sold talent, sold image.” He was immensely proud of the fact that he was original. He was the talent who wrote his own songs, and made his own image.
To gain some more perspective, Tony Palmer in his book All You Need Is Love: the story of popular music, says the music industry then, or the Tin Pan Alley, wrote songs with the sole need to make money. Lyrics would be churned out in less than four minutes, songs would be mass-produced and ready-made. Before becoming a huge industry in America, it had roots in Denmark Street in London where with there being only 12 song publishers, they would bang metal lids together to literally drown out competition. Later musicians were against such industrialisation of music and the birth of these songs were judged by them and their following to be particularly soulless. To see this abjectly anti-establishment man re-record songs and release a standards album of songs written by Alley men is at first blush, shocking.
But not unsurprising for his disposition, reminding us of the time he went ‘electric’ in the Newport Folk Festival, losing half of his folk fan following. The audience for folk and pop were very different in 1965 although Dylan did manage to forge a connection as he does again between the young and the old today. But perhaps they judged Tin Pan Alley too harshly, seeing as folk music has always had a communal nature. There is a sweet freedom in the culture of the Alley, of being able to sing any song you like. There is a freedom from ownership. Of course, today it is called ‘covering a song.’
But Dylan doesn’t just cover these songs. If at all, he is guilty of making covers of his own songs, having often irritated fans in live shows by constantly changing up the tunes of his originals. Triplicate isn’t just a curated playlist — a mixed tape from your boyfriend or merely another recording of hit songs like a Christmas top-30 album from your favourite artists. These songs have been swept back into our lives without the charm of the crooner, removed from its thirty-piece orchestra, and mellifluousness. It’s one thing to remember suddenly and another to remember because one never forgot. He doesn’t serenade, he analyses instead:
“As a man who has always had the wand'ring ways
Now I'm reaching back for yesterdays
'Til a long-forgotten love appears”
His tributes are far removed from the older versions. The renditions of Sinatra’s version of 'Sentimental Journey' take place in a musical, have a robustness about them and always feel like its happening to someone else. Bob Dylan’s take is more ambient and distant, like the song inside your head, the kind that follows the hero in the movies.
Sinatra’s 'P.S. I Love You' sounds stylised, as if only a man in a suit could sing it. I always liked the domestic charm of the lyrics; and the letter and lyric are so simpatico, both essential to romance, our friends during separation. The lines are short but Sinatra draws out the words like he wants to linger and gets to the crux only in the end of the song: “Nothing else to tell you dear/ Except each day feels like a year.” But Dylan’s version doesn’t imply this, separation isn’t sweet and intense. His pauses are longer, and the time taken to sing each line shorter. Some words aren’t even sung, but said, making him seem more resigned and by-the-way.
According to an exclusive interview with AARP after his recording of Shadows In The Night, another album of songs full of Sinatra numbers in 2015, Dylan revealed that he had expressed his desire to release a standards album as early as the '70s but couldn’t, so he came back to it when the time was right. He may be on to something. It was right, in the sixties, to break away. And now could it be that the time is right again to break away? In times of music myriad, to go back in time to more of a single strain?
Referring to how the rock’ n roll revolution destroyed ‘40s music, he said “it’s hard for modern singers to connect with that kind of music and song,” and this album commemorates it: a difficult connection. And concomitantly the effect is not as much nostalgia evoked, but realism. The '40s is a remote influence, and certainly not a historical advantage.
Though still incomparable to his best works, the album has convinced me of the act of listening not cerebrally, but viscerally; that we don't just listen to music because it sounds good, but because it is an experience. Very few albums are given to do that, even if in this case, it works only because it is conjunct to the artist. It speaks of loneliness in an introspective way. However it’s careful not to be morose and dead, rather it’s like living in a muted ennui. The untrained quality of the music gives it spontaneity; and the spontaneity a kind of personalisation that transforms the songs from their jingle-like status to raw feelings. He stops for breath, waits; starts and stops again. He stays on some words: ‘somebody’, muffles others: ‘for her soul’, runs: ‘this would happen,’ ‘laugh secretly’ then augments with nasal twangs: ‘gonna make a sentimental journey’.
And because it’s a recycling of the lyrics, it is familiar too, which is often the case with emotional situations; one feels like they’ve been there before and in the thick of it, that it will never go away. There is no drama in it, no mythology; it’s not an honourable battle wound. So in a cold humorous way that is typical to him, he becomes a bard without poetry. Akin to the illustrations on the poetry book, this album shows us rather than describes. And by being so casually sensitive, he is more serious about love than the yesteryear troubadours. He doesn’t see trees of green, nor red roses. Us too, comme de juste!