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Bob Dylan triples down on his late-career reinvention as a crooner

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Photo: Columbia Records
Photo: Columbia Records
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Bob Dylan

Album: Triplicate
Label: Columbia

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Bob Dylan has one of the most distinctive voices in the history of rock ’n’ roll. But is it any good? That’s not an idle question. The culture’s taste in pop vocalists evolves and diverges, varying by genre, era, and just plain old personal preference. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford is a phenomenal singer for a heavy metal band but wouldn’t sound as good fronting a doo-wop ensemble. The trilling tones of a Disney princess in the mid-20th century bears little relation to how Idina Menzel sounds in Frozen. There are music lovers aplenty who’ve never been able to abide any number of widely beloved rock voices—like Morrissey, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, Neil Young, and, especially, Dylan.

So when Dylan released Shadows In The Night in 2015, longtime fans and critics alike had every reason to wonder if he was pulling some kind of prank. A collection of classic American pop songs mostly made famous by Frank Sinatra, Shadows In The Night is the kind of record a master crooner makes, and not something anyone expected from the nasal-voiced singer-songwriter who whine-shouted his way through “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Dylan followed that LP up with 2016’s Fallen Angels, another round of standards; and now he’s releasing Triplicate, a three-disc set of songs from what is often called “the great American songbook.” The credits alone—with names like Sammy Fain, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Rogers & Hammerstein—is a songwriter pantheon.

What’s made this new direction so confounding is that these three records have come in the wake of 2012’s excellent Tempest, an album of originals that netted Dylan some of his best reviews of the 21st century. Plus, prior to 2009, the singer’s history with covers has been spotty, limited largely to interpretations of traditional folk and blues, along with the handful of contemporary rock songs on 1970’s Self Portrait and 1973’s Dylan (by Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and others) that some critics read as tongue-in-cheek. And then came 2009’s Christmas In The Heart, a collection of carols and hymns that’s arguably where this current cycle began—if only because, like Shadows In The Night, it was a project that when it was announced sounded like a joke, but turned out to be unexpectedly reverent. Lately, seemingly out of nowhere, Dylan’s been taking the “singer” part of singer-songwriter strangely seriously.

There’s no mistaking Triplicate’s intent, or discounting its ambition. None of Dylan’s recent standards albums have felt tossed-off, but Triplicate approaches the classics with a formal rigor far beyond what came before. There are three discs, at exactly 10 songs per, running a little over 30 minutes each. Dylan could’ve easily dropped some numbers and fit everything onto one disc. He could’ve added more tracks to each disc. Instead, he’s made each third of the record into its own experience: short and sweet, and suffused with a reflective melancholy.

In an interview with Bill Flanagan for the official Bob Dylan website, Dylan claims that the songs on each disc are interconnected, and that each of the three parts has its own natural progression and clear meaning. The flow is easy to track. Discs one and two of Triplicate are, on the whole, a little jauntier and more playful, with blasts of horns and lightly swinging rhythms. And if the first two are meant for the dinner-and-dancing crowd, then disc three is aimed for after hours. Aside from the zippy opener “Day In, Day Out,” the songs in the third part are softer and slower, and the sentiments rawer—played for people who are nursing their last drink while anxiously watching the barmaids turn chairs onto the tops of empty tables.

As for the thematic connections… well, those are a little harder to discern, in part because so many of the songs are so familiar that it’s hard to hear them as anything other than their own rigid, standalone entities. Dylan doesn’t radically reinterpret the likes of “Stormy Weather,” “As Time Goes By,” “The Best Is Yet To Come,” or “Sentimental Journey.” He and his band have recorded this music very simply, with brushed drums and multiple reverberating guitars, tracked live in the old Capitol Studios in Hollywood. The sound of this album isn’t just doggedly analog; at times, the experience of listening to Triplicate is like turning a radio dial in the middle of the night and landing on a station so clean, clear, and resounding that it could be originating from the receiver itself.

Dylan offers Flanagan only generalities when pressed on how he sees Triplicate’s triple arcs:

It’s a human story that builds to a climax and it’s personal from end to end. You start out wondering why you bought those blue pajamas and later you’re wondering why you were born. You go from the foolishly absurd to the deadly serious and you’ve passed through the gaudy and the nasty along the way. You get to the edge and you’re played out and you wonder where’s the good news? Isn’t there supposed to be good news? It’s a journey like the song “Skylark,” where your heart goes a-journeying over the shadows and the rain. And that’s pretty much it. It’s a journey of the heart.

Elsewhere in the interview though, he says that each disc is around 30 minutes because he thinks the sonic quality of old LPs suffered whenever a side pushed past 15 minutes. He also says that the number 10—the number of tracks per disc—is “the number of completion… it’s a lucky number, and it’s symbolic of light.”

In a way, comments like these are at the crux of how a Dylan devotee should take Triplicate, given that these last few records may be coming at the expense of another Tempest or “Love And Theft.” Like its predecessors, Triplicate is a pleasant record, with moments of magic. The traditionalist touch works against recordings like “That Old Feeling” because there’s no surprise as to what Dylan’s going to do with it. (He’s just going to sing it; and the basic novelty of Bob Dylan rasping his way through an old chestnut faded two albums ago.) But when he reaches deeper into the American archives for something like Ralph MacDonald’s “Trade Winds,” or Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “There’s A Flaw In My Flue,” the effect is like spending a few memorable minutes with a knowledgeable music buff, and listening to him enthuse about an old 78 he just picked up a flea market.

Still, it may be hard for fans to escape the feeling that this is just a lark: a caprice that only a rich rock star with a deep catalog can indulge. Pop stars by the dozens covered Dylan when he was starting out; and Shadows In The Night/Fallen Angels/Triplicate can be seen as a fascinating, tuneful exercise in alternate history, imagining a scenario where he’d been the one dropping by TV variety shows to sing someone else’s songs. Which brings back that question from up top: If an artist whose voice isn’t that dynamic spends the waning years of his career crooning songs that don’t have a lot in common with his own best-loved work, is that a choice we all should celebrate?

The answer, ultimately, is that Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, and can do whatever the hell Bob Dylan wants to do. Part of what’s made him such an enduring cultural figure is that he’s continued to evolve as an artist and person: “going electric,” finding religion, working with different producers, et cetera. He’s also continued to defy what fans expect of him, in the process reshaping the narrative around his work. Just as The Basement Tapes put Dylan’s sprawling, poetic early albums into the context of roadhouse blues and oddball mountain music, so his life and music post-1990 has often been about him getting out of the Rock Legend business, repackaging himself as just another working musician, grinding out a living on the road. He seems to be actively encouraging those who follow his career to eschew deep analysis of his lyrics and influences, and instead to appreciate him as a dedicated entertainer.

Dylan has grown into that role, whether through divine inspiration or sheer repetition. He’s musically simpatico with his veteran touring band, and like Joni Mitchell on her later records, his voice has deepened, developed an appealing smokiness. The best way to describe Triplicate tracks like “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan” and “These Foolish Things” is that they’re surprisingly nimble—even graceful. No, Dylan doesn’t sing as well as Tony Bennett. But it’s not hard to imagine him as Jerome Kern, sitting at a piano, humming to himself, idly dreaming.