Sounds Like Anything But
In 1967 Bob Dylan churned out a series of lyrics that sat orphaned for decades until this year, when Dylan – supposedly prodded by his publisher – officially approved the songs to be recorded by a T Bone Burnett assembled ensemble. The band, rounded out by Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Rhiannon Giddens and (surprisingly) Johnny Depp, has subsequently released Lost on The River: The New Basement Tapes, in close step to Dylan’s own November release of Basement Tapes Complete. The two records focus on material from the same era in Dylan’s career, except only one album actually features Zimmy. Lost on The River therefore becomes a Dylan album by default, sounding well polished but little like the artist it seeks to commemorate.
Fulfilling the marketable promise that supergroups bring, Burnett’s ensemble infuses great musicianship into the project, however a disconnect remains; Lost is an album of Dylan songs that sounds like an album of anything but. It has always been a dangerous prospect to try and cover Dylan well. To many he is more poet than performer, and his songs largely survive musically due to his own railing touch. To take a Bob Dylan song out of a Bob Dylan context- especially unreleased content- looks to tempt fate. The New Basement Tapes show that despite having a tight band, legendary musicianship, and a high level of producing quality, Bob Dylan songs cannot be born into this world by anyone but Bob Dylan.
The sentiment of the record, however, is greatly felt. Giddy passion swells up throughout, echoing a child’s excitement towards a stocked Christmas tree. On “Six Months in Kansas City” Costello sings excitedly in his melodic abrasiveness, while on “Kansas City” Marcus Mumford has finally managed to sound interested in his own work, leading an emotionally-torqued balled of failed long-distance romance. Stepping in for Costello, Johnny Depp provides rhythm guitar on “Kansas City”, and plays better than one might assume. What he and the other musicians prove is that the failings of Lost on The River are no fault of their own, stemming rather from the natural impossibility of anyone doing Bob Dylan well.
It is true that Hendrix remade “All Along The Watchtower” into something arguably better than the original, and a few others have successfully tackled other areas of the Dylan catalogue, but to task a group with recording an entire album of uncut 60’s Dylan? It’s doubtful that 21’st Century Dylan could even deliver on that.