There have been many Bob Dylans: protest singer, psychedelic rocker, country crooner, Vegas show performer, blues musician, roots minstrel performer. But even Bob Dylan’s identity can’t shapeshift in the 76 different ways attempted on Amnesty International’s Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan. The Dylan of this compilation is stretched so thin you can see clear through him.
When you interpret Dylan, should you imitate him or take inspiration from his work and create a distinctly new thing? Many of the performers on these four CDs don’t seem quite sure. A quick catalog of the approaches and results:
Pleasing Bob Nods
Several great performers turn in perfectly nice renditions of Dylan’s songs without varying too much from his original take. Pete Townshend sings a sweet “Corrina, Corrina,” Mark Knopfler nicely delivers on “Restless Farwell,” and Steve Earle gets the atmosphere just right on his “One More Cup of Coffee.” “Buckets of Rain” is done in an appropriately rootsy and jangling way by Fistful of Mercy, and Diana Krall’s “Simple Twist of Fate” hits the wistful mood Dylan was looking for with that song.
These are all pleasant, but none of them is extraordinary. It’s the sort of weightless music you would be happy to hear on a back porch of a bar some summer afternoon when you find yourself listening to an unexpectedly good cover band. There’s no reason to commit the band’s name to memory, or seek them out the next time.
Can We Add That Sound from the Game Pong?
A number of musicians try to distinguish themselves by pressing every effect on the sound board. There are too many effects, unnecessary harmonies, and it all winds up in confusion. “Love Sick,” a spare and grim song, cannot handle all the activity Mariaci El Bronx puts into it.
This is also true of Bryan Ferry’s “Bob Dylans’ Dream,” which I swear has the sound of a 1980s videogame mixed in with the harmonica and swelling string section.
Elvis Costello comes very close to joining this category with his version of “License to Kill,” which is precious but marred by the echoing sound of falling plywood.
I See What You Were Going For
Ke$ha’s version of “Don’t Think Twice” seems like a sincere attempt to inhabit the narrator’s sorrow and pain, but the result oddly recalls a performance piece for a graduate class in music: I appreciate the artistic attempt, but I’m not sure I’d listen to it again. And the treatment misses what has always struck me about that song, which is the singer’s irritation and anger hidden behind his pose that he’s tough and doing just fine. That tension—the half-hidden sorrow—makes the song interesting. Making it all woe goes too far.
There are two kinds of exceptional piece in this collection: the pleasing to listen to and the artistically impressive. Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” would be lush to the touch if you could wrap it around your shoulders. Taj Mahal plays “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” with all the madcap and clatter you want for that song. “With God On Our Side” by K’Naan is even better, perhaps my favorite recording of the whole 76. At first it feels messy. It’s a total re-working. The lyrics are even new. But the rhymes are very Dylan. It’s a catchy song about war hypocrisy. That might seem a discordant treatment for such a serious subject, but that’s the song’s point: It’s about the gloss that gets put over the ugly.
The other kind of standout is less pleasing to my ear, but belongs in this category for interpreting Dylan in a way that’s at once new and consistent with the song’s original intention. My Chemical Romance does a blistering version of “Desolation Row” that makes the creepy world of the lyrics feel urgent and contemporary. Rise Against offers a “Ballad of Hollis Brown” that sounds, at first, like the same old jingly tune we know, but then erupts at just the right point in the song, when things get insistent and desperate.
Cage the Elephant’s version of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is highly atmospheric, dragging along with the desperate tale. It felt self-indulgent at first, but won me over after a few listens.
Bob Dylan has been covered since before he was even Bob Dylan. Most people first heard “Blowing in the Wind” not in his thin, nasally voice, but in the soothing harmonies of Peter, Paul and Mary. The Byrds did a more popular version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” than he did. And his success only brought more cover versions. Jimi Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower” may be the best cover ever: a new interpretation that’s as good or better than the original. Dylan played it Hendrix’s way forever after. (And Hendrix’s version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Monterey is even better.) Susan Tedeschi sings a painfully beautiful “Lord Protect My Child,” and if you can find the bootleg of her playing “Don’t Think Twice” with the Allman Brothers, that one will make you happy, too. Johnny Winter’s “Highway 61” as played at Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert makes me feel like I’m out there on the bleachers in the sun, and The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” sung by the late Richard Manuel, is beautiful—as is pretty much everything on Gotta Serve Somebody, a collection of his gospel songs.
Unlike most the songs in this sprawling collection, those are recordings worth listening to over and over again.