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A Great Time to be a Bob Dylan Fan

Bob Dylan's latest album is the soundtrack from his 2021 concert film "Shadow Kingdom"

Nothing personifies Bob Dylan circa 21st Century than Shadow Kingdom, his latest album, released on June 2, which features studio recordings of his one-hour streaming special in the lockdown days of mid-2021.

Shadow Kingdom premiered as a black-and-white concert film on the streaming platform and featured Dylan and a group of musicians performing “pre-recorded set pieces” in a 1920’s juke-joint setting. It was directed by Israeli-Americana Alma Har’el and recorded over seven days in Santa Monica, California, when COVID had grounded Dylan’s global Never Ending Tour.

At the time, it received an enthusiastic reception from the critics who effused with adjectives like “gorgeous concert film” and “completely thrilling.” Most were particularly impressed with the 80-year-old’s vocal performances. Variety’s Chris Willman noted: “He hasn’t sounded better in decades.”

So it is no surprise that the 14-song studio sound track of the 54-minute performance has quickly won the hearts of music hacks.

"What an absolute joy it is, in which the grand old man of songcraft flips through his own back pages with genuine relish, a man in his 80's revisiting the words of his firebrand youth and finding entirely new meanings there," gushed The Telegraph (U.K.).

In a headline, Rolling Stone declared: Bob Dylan Makes His Classic Songs Seem Stunningly Brand-New on ‘Shadow Kingdom.’ Writer Michaelangelo Matos noted:

“What makes his intimate new release a triumph is that it’s the ultimate version of both sides of Dylan’s late career. It brilliantly reinvents some of his most iconic songs, while also feeling like a definitive recording itself.”

Matos added: “Now, the studio recordings of the songs that appeared in Shadow Kingdom have been collected for this album, proof that as striking as the film was, this is a project that was made for listening.

“Throughout the entire album, Dylan’s singing is sly and effortlessly powerful. His voice here has body, its rough edges cannily elided, his phrasing constantly finding new angles on lyrics that may once have seemed nailed in place,” Matos wrote.

The album – available on CD and double L.P. – features the 13 Dylan originals from the concert, with track 14 being a Dylan-penned instrumental which served as a four-and-a-half -minute closing sound clip over the film’s credits.

What is somewhat confusing is the fact that none of the musicians featured in the original production are actually listed on the album sleeve. It is generally accepted that those musicians who mimed onscreen with Dylan did not actually play on the studio tracks. The best clue as to the identity of the recording artists comes from a list of “Recorded Personal” released when the filmed production was originally streamed. This was headed by Dylan - credited with vocals and harmonica - and included nine other musicians, among them such big names as T-Bone Burnett (guitar), Don Was (Upright bass), Greg Leisz (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin), Tim Pierce (guitar) and Jeff Taylor (accordion).

In his review in Super Deluxe Edition, Paul Sinclair made particular reference to this confusion - or “mystery” as he termed it - over exactly who might be playing on the official songs from Shadows Kingdom. But he quickly noted: “What we can be certain of is the quality of the music and the performances, which lean heavily on acoustic guitar, upright bass and accordion – there are no drums or piano, but Dylan adds a touch of harmonica here and there.”

Like Rolling Stone, the SDE review also favoured Dylan’s vocals: “Dylan is in fine voice on Shadow Kingdom and the musicians breathe new life into these songs with their inspired and often stripped-back, cantina band-like arrangements.”

The original production was officially titled Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan. And this too had some of the critics perplexed.

Sinclair noted: “Although the Shadow Kingdom film was described as ‘The Early Songs of Bob Dylan,’ confusingly, it doesn’t include anything from the first four albums. These reworking of songs span from 1965 to 1989. The earliest is a new take on ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ from Bringing It All Back Home, and the most recent track, one of the highlights, is a version of ‘What Was It You Wanted,’ from Oh Mercy.”

Dylan’s constant evolution of his music is no better illustrated than on this album. And the one track which stands out for morphing has to be “Tombstone Blues.” When he originally released it on Highway 61 Revisited, it was bouncy and energetic, reinforced by some inventive lead guitar licks from the great Michael Bloomfield. Now, on Shadow Kingdom, Dylan has pulled back on everything. The pace has slowed drastically, while his delivery is so intimate, it is at times, just one strum away from being a cappella.

“In 1965, the song rattled along at a manic pace, Dylan’s delivery daring the listener to keep up, and giddy enough to force us to — the tombstone he’s singing about is still a long way off, though it’s faintly visible. Here the song is slowed to a wry crawl,” Mato wrote in Rolling Stone.

“It stands totally on its own, and so does the album it’s on,” he added.

Equally delightful is the softness he now affords to another 1965 classic, “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues.” His delivery is so soothing. And there really is something intoxicating when he delivers the memorable line I started off on burgundy/But soon hit the harder stuff. The same slow gentleness is also applied to his makeover of another classic “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”

Most critics link this creative evolution to his obsession with touring where fans have come to expect the reinvention of his classic songs. Now in his 83rd year, he is in the middle of what is listed as “Rough and Rowdy Ways” World Wide Tour 2021-24 – named after his previous studio album, released in 2020. Dylan is currently playing in Portugal and has gigs scheduled through Spain, France and Italy in the next couple of months.

And if Dylan is not headed for your part of the world, then listening to Shadow Kingdom is a worthy substitute from seeing the great man live.

Writing in Super Deluxe Edition, Paul Sinclair said it best:

“Shadow Kingdom is a record for Dylan diehards to treasure – the latest of several releases by him that are essential purchases. Unlike some acts who, when they choose to revisit and rerecord songs from their back catalogue, simply churn out inferior acoustic versions, or rope in an orchestra to add some strings and horns, Dylan has expertly reinvented some of his well-known and lesser-known numbers, taking them into new territory and never sounding once like he’s going through the motions.”

He added: "Dylan’s career has lasted more than 60 years and, now in his early eighties, he still surprises, confuses and delights us. Long may it continue.”

But Sinclair’s best line was actually his opener: “It’s a great time to be a Bob Dylan fan.”

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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