It’s almost always a joy, at least for this longtime Dylan fan, to watch other artists interpret the Bard of Hibbing. Many of the tribute albums, the concerts, the film soundtracks (amidst pleasant straight-ahead covers) inevitably feature artists creatively mining Dylan’s back catalog, as Joan Baez did with “Love Is Just a Four Letter Word,” or reinterpreting the canon in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The resultant tracks veer close to magic.
Yet such magic is the product of a spark: spontaneity, weirdness, an unlikely match between an unpolished Dylan gem and a funky-minded artist. This cannot be achieved by design, even when the attempt is noble. Take the latest Dylan tribute effort, a “supergroup” called the Basement Tapes — My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, Elvis Costello, and Marcus Mumford — charged by the forces of artistic capitalism in the form of producer T Bone Burnett with finishing lyric-scraps from Dylan’s Basement Tapes sessions. Their new tunes are chipper enough. Check out their performances on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel Live to see what I mean:
But by the same token, it surprises me not in the least that watching this music get made, over the course of a lengthy documentary airing on Showtime tonight called Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued (produced and directed by Sam Jones), is less than thoroughly engrossing. And that has little to do with the talented, game-enough cadre of artists, and almost everything to do with the nature of the source material.
The (actual) Basement Tapes, in their many leaks and iterations, remain special precisely because of their informal, dare I say freewheelin’, origins. They began as a secret because they were recorded, for the most part, without a polished endgame in mind. And you can feel it through the years when you tune in to the recordings. As one participant in the Lost Songs documentary says, the word that comes to mind is “joy.” As a younger Dylan fan, I was particularly entranced by tracks on Basement Tapes recordings where Dylan and the Band sing “See you later, alligator / See you later, Allen Ginsberg,” over and over again, changing up rhythm, word-sounds, and syntax in a way that sounds both deeply private and delightful. Essentially, it was music that made you laugh just by listening, because you were part of an off-the-record joke.
This new supergroup, on the other hand, has been put together like a reality TV show. Sure, the artists have talent, but their convening reads like the Real World: Dylan Disciples. There’s the classic rock godpapa, Costello; the superstar mega-fan, Mumford; the mellow dude, Jim James; the out-to-prove himself Goldmsith; and the chick with the incredible pipes who isn’t even that into Dylan, Giddens. She mentions onscreen that she knows there was a basement, and she knows there were tapes, but she’s really just going into this house (in LA, not Woodstock, let us note) to make awesome music.
So, yeah. You can almost hear the tagline: “This is what happens when you put five strangers in a house and tell them to stop making their own folk rock and start getting real.” It’s almost antithetical to the origins of the music they’re working with, which — far from fabled “lost songs” — appear to be scraps of lyrics scribbled on lost sheets of paper. The artists think they’re “collaborating with a 27 year-old Bob Dylan.” But Dylan of today probably doesn’t give a fuck (to be fair, he doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck about anything, and that’s his prerogative). “I’ve never seen these lyrics since the day they were written,” Dylan tells us obligingly.
Unfortunately, the parts of the film that woke me up the most were the interviews and footage that involved actual Dylan, and the actual Basement Tapes. It’s my hope that a genuinely worthy successor to The Basement Tapes is happening right now, in someone’s damp garage or basement — with no cameras running, and no marquee names.
The album, called Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, will sound fine, even great, to people who love twangy folk-rock. Yet the nakedly commercial gambit that spawned it may be the Basement Tapes sequel our late-capitalist cultural moment deserves. I hope that’s not the case.