He may be known primarily as a rock legend, a cultural icon and the definitive voice of protest, but even through all the grandeur, there’s no denying that Bob Dylan can write a superb love song. On Friday, Dylan released his 38th studio album, the highly anticipated three-disc, 30-song Triplicate. The album — an ambitious selection of covers from the Great American Songbook — is his best work since 2006’s Modern Times, and it demonstrates Dylan’s ability to interpret the work of other songwriters and construct a narrative that is as original and intimate as his own writing.
One could argue that Dylan has already written music that equals, and perhaps surpasses, the songs he covers, which is precisely what makes Triplicate such a fascinating experience; it serves as an ode to iconic American songwriters and is put forth by another visionary songwriter in his own right. It is a masterful arrangement which, by building a story of love and heartbreak that is as personal as Dylan’s original creations, illuminates his emotional artistry. Even as a cover album, Triplicate presents listeners with Dylan at his finest and most distinctive.
Because the Great American Songbook was also the basis of Dylan’s Shadows in the Night in 2015 and Fallen Angels in 2016, his decision to take on standards once again in Triplicate might not appear so surprising. But both Shadows and Angels were forced attempts at the classics, creating the impression that Dylan was attempting to prove himself as a vocalist. Anyone even remotely familiar with Dylan’s repertoire of folk, rock and blues knows of the nasal, raspy essence of his voice, a far cry from the soulful, crooning jazz of figures such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Even for accomplished artists, covering these classics is no small feat.
But with Triplicate, Dylan doesn’t just succeed in pulling off the album — he makes each and every one of the jazz standards his own. The maturity and grit of his voice emerge distinctly from the smooth, enchanting instrumental background, forging melodies that are as fresh as they are classic.
Triplicate opens with a quiet, gradual crescendo of instrumental jazz in the delightfully infectious “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.” Although it has a light, bouncing tune, the song’s lyrics (“My feet are back upon the ground / I’ve lost the one girl that I found”) introduce the album’s encompassing theme of love lost. With the second track, “September of My Years,” Triplicate descends into an aching sorrow, entering a place of darkness that it never completely escapes during the next 28 tracks, despite its few blissful moments.
From covers of the Casablanca classic “As Time Goes By” to the Ink Spots’ “It’s Funny To Everyone But Me,” Dylan sings about the pain involved in leaving love in the past. By constructing and exploring this theme in a personal, heartfelt manner over the course of Triplicate, he utilizes his signature storytelling skills that ensure the album impacts through virtuosity rather than nostalgia. By the time Triplicate ends with the devastating “Why Was I Born,” Dylan has left his listeners with an aesthetic satisfaction and an emotional yearning.
Perhaps the most fascinating track on the album is “Stormy Weather,” made popular in the 20th century by performers such as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In Dylan’s revisioning, the sensuality associated with these previous recordings dissipates into a harsh, blunt dreariness; rather than creating intricacy and nuance with “Stormy Weather” as he does in his other tracks, he simplifies it, crafting a simpler, sadder song, an unmistakable interpretation of visible “stormy weather.” The track fits comfortably with the others in the album, suited to the melancholy of the melodies and lyrics.
With Triplicate, Bob Dylan has nothing to prove. Although these songs predate his original work, when reimagined by Dylan, they serve as a passionate reflection of his greatest qualities as a musician, artist and storyteller.
Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].