By: Dennis Cook
Oh, Dylan. Has ever a songwriter been so studied? So pawed over and analyzed? He emerged so bright and prescient in the early '60s that it's easy to comprehend how people piled messiah-like stature on him in record time. While everyone around him was struggling to find a voice, Dylan sang and spoke with authority, poetry and alarming pose. Amongst the flutter and wow of social unrest, he made music that made sense of chaos by befriending it. Wildness found shelter in his cryptic hollows, and that's a dangerous thing to allow into your shadow.
Director Todd Haynes fictionalized mosaic of Dylan's life from his Greenwich Village start to his fall into Christianity in the late '70s is a lot like the man himself – a complex mosaic of contradictory elements that usually obfuscates more than it clarifies. Both Dylan the man and I'm Not There are longwinded and prone to proselytize but endlessly fascinating and ultimately brilliant. In the film, seven different actors take on some aspect of Dylan's persona with names like Jude Quinn, Arthur Rimbaud and Woody Guthrie. Haynes is puzzling over the nature of an icon and laying bare both the substance and the artifice behind different phases in Dylan's life.
The soundtrack for I'm Not There (Sony Legacy) continues the screen's cheeky intellectual muddling by offering up 33 cover versions of Dylan tunes, both legendary and obscure. Except these versions, for the most part, were not featured in the film, which leans heavily on Dylan's original studio recordings. So, the role playing continues in the audio realm, often with equally inspired results.
These exclusive recordings bring in the likes of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy ("Simple Twist of Fate"), Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova ("You Ain't Going Nowhere"), The Hold Steady ("Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?"), Sufjan Stevens ("Ring Them Bells") and Richie Havens ("Tombstone Blues"). In addition, there are two "house bands" that back various singers. House Band One is Calexico. House Band Two is The Million Dollar Bashers and features Sonic Youth dudes Steve Shelley (drums) and Lee Renaldo (guitar), John Medeski (keys), Tom Verlaine (guitar), session whiz and Dylan alumni Tony Garnier (bass), fellow session master and Beck veteran Smokey Hormel (guitar) and Wilco's Nels Cline (guitar). The contributors go far beyond "A-List" status here, and it's abundantly clear everyone deeply wanted to be involved and make these recordings something special. Like all truly holy things - especially if there's human grit stuck in the wings like Dylan – it's easy to understand why people want to touch some part of it.
Calexico's uniformly excellent playing underscores winning performances from Willie Nelson ("Senor"), Iron & Wine ("Dark Eyes"), Roger McGuinn ("One More Cup of Coffee") and especially the archly sweet reading of "Goin To Acapulco" with MMJ's Jim James. The Million Dollar Bashers fuel inspired performances from Stephen Malkmus ("Ballad of a Thin Man" & "Maggie's Farm"), a surprisingly tough Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ("Highway 61 Revisited") and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder ("All Along The Watchtower").
Most tracks show Dylan's fingerprints, the power of the original sessions too strong and omnipresent to be fully overcome. And maybe they didn't even try. Many cuts capture the bravado and grand ennui of Bob's mid-to-late '60s recordings, notably Yo La Tengo's take on "Fourth Time Around" and Cat Power's sashay through "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again." Bobby Dylan was a cocky so & so at the height of his original popularity and these artists tap into his confidence, snarl and swing.
This is a thoroughly post-modern take on a motion picture soundtrack that pays off huge dividends. Like Haynes, the musicians gathered here have enormous admiration for Dylan and his work. They treat these songs with reverence and in turn pick up some of their intrinsic shine. In many ways, musicians approach Dylan's work with greater trepidation than an actual hymn like "Amazing Grace." For better or worse, Dylan's music has a significance far beyond what its creator intended, gaining a foothold in the English lexicon while encapsulating emotions and time periods in a way few ever will. The soundtrack to I'm Not There understands this and executes things accordingly throughout. In short, an embarrassment of riches befitting their composer.
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