There have been Bob Dylan cover albums as long as there has been Dylan, but this – the 34 song soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ Cubist movie I’m Not There; containing 34 tracks, less than half of which actually feature in the film – really raises the bar.
Most obviously, it’s down to the quality and coherence of the musicians rounded up.
From contemporaries with layers of Dylan-association (Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn, Willie Nelson), through elder indie statesmen (Tom Verlaine, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo) to recent darlings (Cat Power, The Hold Steady, Charlotte Gainsbourg) the soundtrack extends the movie’s kaleidoscopic, all-facets and faces methodology.
It also cleverly identifies Dylan as simultaneously the one fixed, yet most mercurial point in rock history.
Holding it together like glue are the two house bands who contribute a third of the tracks: the lithe “Million Dollar Bashers,” (Verlaine, half of Sonic Youth, Wilco’s Nels Cline, keyboardist John Medeski and, tellingly, Dylan’s long-term bassist, Tony Garnier); and Calexico, who excel, framing My Morning Jacket man Jim James’s gorgeous falsetto to transform “Going To Acapulco” into south-of-the-border soul.
The other deciding factor here is canny song selection. Some warhorses are present, but this is a relatively adventurous rag-bag, pilfering from across the dark continent of Dylan’s songbook and shining a light on neglected outposts. Heavy weight falls on the Highway 61 Revisited – Blonde on Blonde axis, but some of the most thrilling recordings come from more unexpected places: Nelson and Calexico’s burning reading of Street Legal’s “Senor”; Iron and Wine (with Calexico again) transmuting (i)Empire Burlesque(i)’s “Dark Eyes” into a fluttering, caged exotic bird; Sufjan Stevens‘ sprinkling toy-town-rococo across Oh Mercy’s “Ring Them Bells”; Verlaine spooked, spooky as he creeps through Time Out of Mind’s “Cold Irons Bound.”
We even have, in Stephen Malkmus’ lovely “Can’t Leave Her Behind” and Sonic Youth’s forever-dying “I’m Not There” itself, two Dylan compositions that were not only never released, but never actually completed.
Importantly, though, it closes with the first official release for Dylan’s own recording of “I’m Not There,” an extemporised sketch from the ‘Basement Tapes’ sessions. Fragile, fugitive, deeply mysterious – after all the other ideas of Dylan on display, it makes clear how completely not there he has been.