Those who know me will not be surprised that when I heard a play was being produced in London based on songs by Bob Dylan, I would rush to get tickets. My partner bought a pair of tickets as a Christmas present last year, and we were in the front row, dead center.
This is the first time Dylan has authorized the use of his music on stage since an ill-fated dance-based show by Twyla Tharp in 2006, that lasted a mere three weeks on Broadway. Dylan’s record company, Sony, approached playwright and director Conor McPherson asking if he would be interested in writing something around Dylan’s songs, and while he was reluctant, he came up with an idea and submitted it to Dylan’s management. They approved, and he went ahead with the project. The theater describes it as follows:
Duluth, Minnesota. 1934.
A community living on a knife-edge huddle together in the local guesthouse.
The owner, Nick, owes more money than he can ever repay, his wife Elizabeth is losing her mind and their daughter Marianne is carrying a child no-one will account for.
And, when a preacher selling bibles and a boxer looking for a comeback show up in the middle of the night, things start to spiral beyond the point of no return…
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What’s most impressive about Bob Dylan is that, for more than fifty years, he has been a shape-shifter, creating trends, abandoning them, then returning to the roots of popular music. With the 2015 Shadows in the Night, Dylan surprised us by releasing an album of standards, mostly songs that Frank Sinatra had sung. At the time, I wrote:
But, no, he’s created something of a masterpiece here. In ten songs, at just 35 minutes, Dylan recreates an ambience, a mood, a feeling. These stripped down arrangements – compared to the way the songs were performed back in the day – allow Dylan to do some of his finest singing in years. Even Bob said that he felt his voice was at its best during these recordings.
In 2016, he followed up with Fallen Angels, another selection of standards, which reproduces that some tone. (I didn’t get around to reviewing it, for some reason…)
Now, Triplicate is another collection of standards, this time thirty songs on three discs. Each disc is thematic: the first is entitled ‘Til the Sun Goes Down; the second is Devil Dolls; and the third is Comin’ Home Late. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
It’s interesting to look at the three album covers. The first had a photo of Dylan, the second a hand with cards, and Triplicate is just a single word on a maroon background, almost like an epitaph. It’s as if Dylan wanted to efface himself from the music and not appear on the disc at all. (I don’t have the CD, but on the limited edition vinyl version, there’s a black-and-white photo of Dylan inside the front cover, but not on the front of back of the album. Presumably that photo is in the CD booklet or notes.)
Dylan has given a long interview about Triplicate, which you can read on BobDylan.com. This is the longest interview he has given about his music in a long time, and it gives a lot of insight into his thoughts about this release.
There’s something magical about Dylan singing these songs. Sure, his voice cracks a bit, he’s off key at times – Stormy Weather is particularly imperfect – but if you close your eyes, you can hear a wind-up Victrola playing old songs in a smoky bar. Or you can imagine Bob on stage in a small club, as glasses clink, people chat, and the band plays its final set of the evening. Just as Dylan retreated to traditional songs with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, in the 1992 Good As I Been to You and the 1993 World Gone Wrong, Triplicate, and its two predecessors, create a tone that is anchored in time. The time of the radio; of crooners; a pre-technological time when music meant something much than it does now.
These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.
Whether it’s with a horn section, or just with Dylan’s band – which again shows how competent it is at playing just about any style of music – the recording is impeccable. Dylan didn’t overdub the horns; he said that doing it live was better, and with a competent producer and engineer, this is certainly the case. The sound is perfectly balanced, and Dylan fits his voice faultlessly with the backing musicians. (As far as I know, all the songs on all three of these releases were recording “live” in the studio; in other words, all the musicians playing at the same time.)
Something about Triplicate suggests that it might be the last Dylan album. There is a sense of finality in the music. Nearly 76 years old, Bob is still touring, a hundred or so concerts a year, so perhaps he’s going to continue for a while. But he’s done everything now, from records to performances, to the Nobel Prize for Literature (which he is said to be picking up today). Perhaps the second song on Triplicate is a hint:
One day you turn around and it’s summer Next day you turn around and it’s fall And all the winters and the springs of a lifetime Whatever happened to them all?
As a man who has always had the wandering ways I keep looking back to yesterdays ‘Til a long-forgotten love appears And I find that I’m sighing softly as I near September, the warm September of my years
No matter what, put this album on, not too loud, turn down the lights, and close your eyes. Dylan and his band will transport you to a different time.
I’m seeing Dylan perform in May. As much as I want to hear some of the great classics, like Desolation Row and Visions of Johanna, I would be happy to hear him and has band perform all the songs on this album. The tone Bob gets with these songs when performed live – he played five or six of them in every concert in his last tour – is special. No one plays music like this authentically any more. Except Bob Dylan.