In recent years, as Bob Dylan has been awarded hall-of-fame inductions and most-influential-artist proclamations, he has entered the national imagination as something of a legendary resistance fighter, in the tradition of George Washington and Pancho Villa, an aging general who liberated an entire nation and whose exploits have taken on mythic and poetic dimensions. He has the melancholy air of a man who is worshipped for what he once was. Critics and fans have tried to name his successor (Conor Oberst being a recent and singularly ridiculous candidate), but predictably, this task has proved futile. The problem is that Bob Dylan is no longer just a man — he’s a legend whose influence is immeasurable. It’s more ubiquitous and profound than anything afterwards likely will be.
The upcoming Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There,” is, according to the trailer, based on “true, false, authentic, exaggerated, real, imagined” stories about Dylan’s life. In casting six different actors as Dylan, the movie ostensibly seeks to represent the distinct phases of his life, and the tendency he has to resist definition and to defy identity. The soundtrack to the film has similar ideas in mind. Its thirty-four tracks are a series of Dylan covers by artists new and old, from strikingly diverse backgrounds, ranging from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Willie Nelson to Cat Power and Calexico, from Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo to Charlotte Gainsbourg and Antony & the Johnsons.
The insistence on eclecticism clearly suggests that Dylan’s influence is alive and huge. It is exciting to think of these artists as a sort of musical family — or more accurately, as a tiny, tiny piece of a musical family — with Dylan as godfather. But these “children” are not all young. Some, such as Ramblin’ Jack, are older than Dylan; others, such as Richie Havens, are Dylan’s contemporaries; still others, such as Sonic Youth and even Jeff Tweedy, rose to prominence late in Dylan’s career, but while he was still boldly mutating his style. It is even more compelling, then, to see these artists as people who may have also influenced Dylan himself, part of a two-way exchange of ideas.
This record is inevitable: Dylan’s spirit has increasingly haunted all aspects of music since he first picked up Woodie Guthrie’s mantle in the early 1960s, and perhaps even before that. (To what extent is Dylan himself an inevitability, the product of a musical and spiritual movement coalescing simultaneously among farmers of the Dust Bowl Exodus and the urban youth of Greenwich Village clubs, a feeling born in the Great Depression and not coming to flower until Dylan thrust it to the eager public?) The songs on this album literalize something that everyone knew was there all along. The result is poignant and exciting.
It’s difficult to explain just how great this CD is. Not only do individual artists’ styles engage and clash with Dylan’s songs in beautiful and unexpected ways, but the initial matchmaking process (who gets to hook up with which songs?) is masterfully executed. Sufjan Stevens lends “Ring Them Bells” his exuberant and nostalgic spirituality; Karen O infuses “Highway 61 Revisited” with her messy punk sensibility; Jeff Tweedy makes “Simple Twist of Fate” heartbreaking and deliberate; Antony Hegarty imbues “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with indescribable tenderness, recalling Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” These qualities exist already in the Dylan originals, and the covers emphasize and explore them. It seems almost as if each artist performs the Dylan song to which his or her own style is most indebted.
Though most artists are featured only once, some — such as Yo La Tengo, Stephen Malkmus and Calexico — have several credits to their names. This fact may be merely incidental, but it’s intriguing to think of these bands and artists as some of the more prominent bearers of Dylan’s legacy. Malkmus performs the famous “Maggie’s Farm” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and the more obscure “Can’t Leave Her Behind.” In a move that returns a song to its Dylan birth, Yo La Tengo performs “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which is best known (or perhaps even only known) as a 1979 cover by Prince.
Another recurring act on the album is the newly formed band The Million Dollar Bashers, composed of members of Sonic Youth, Wilco and Television, among others. The Bashers back several of the solo musicians, emphasizing again the sheer community and collaborative spirit of the “Dylan family.”
The album just fills you up with happiness. It’s like being at a feast with all your favorite foods prepared in crazy new ways, or going to a comedy show where you understand all the jokes. In any case, it portends good things for the future of music.