Bob Dylan, at the age of 75, is releasing a triple album of American popular standards.
That’s a sentence worth reading twice. Hey, maybe even three times.
At a moment in history when paradigms seems to be dropping like leaves, Dylan is blowing through a few himself. But in the digital age, why not release a triple album? While old fogies like me might spend top dollar and get the three vinyl records, to the general pop music audience it’s all just a few clicks, and what does it matter: single album, double album, triple album? Record what you want to record. The old guy understands that better, perhaps, than many of the young ones.
When George Harrison released his famous triple album, All Things Must Pass, in 1970, it was as if all those years of taking a backseat in the Beatles had set him up for this explosion of material. He had so much stuff he wanted to do, and he did it all at once.
At the age of 75, in the year of our Lord 2017, Bob Dylan has so much stuff he wants to do.
At the age of 75, in the year of our Lord 2017, Bob Dylan has so much stuff he wants to do. There is a miracle therein, all by itself, and quite a large one.
Another miracle is that this is not merely an eccentric whim by an aging rock & roller. Turn the lights down, and turn the speakers up, and listen to what Dylan and his brilliant band achieved on Shadows in the Night, and on Fallen Angels, his two previous albums of American popular standards (following closely although not dogmatically a Sinatra-inspired thread). The level of musical artistry is jaw dropping. Many great singers have sung these great songs with love, and Dylan has taken his place (unlikely as it may be) in that roster, singing these tunes with a touching reverence for their integrity, their melody and their poetry, and adding his own kind of spiritual underpinning, with which he elevates them magically to the level of hymns and psalms.
Seeing the reaction of many erstwhile Dylan fans across the expanse of the internet today, I’m reminded of how it went with his “gospel era.” The first album, Slow Train Coming, was such a shock that it generated excitement despite the subject matter, and it did quite well, critically and popularly. With the second album, Saved, the response was more like: “Oh no! You mean he’s serious about this?” And by the time of the third, Shot of Love, critics were just about too bored and/or hostile to even comment. (And this despite the fact that all three records are quite distinct in style.)
They were wrong then, and they are, if anything, even more wrong now. Dylan is doing incredible work here. There was no reason ever to expect that we as listeners would get such a gift from this artist in the latter stages of his life, in this early part of the 21st century, or even that he’d still be around. He’s breaking every paradigm. It’s a joy to witness, and it’s something to be savored, and something to be deeply grateful for. And one knows, hearing Dylan sing these songs, that he’s as aware of that as any of us.