I’m Not There OST

Various Artists – I’m Not There
Columbia; 4 stars

To try and sum up I’m Not There, the thirty-four song soundtrack to the Todd Haynes Dylan biopic of the same name, is about as futile as trying to draw a conclusive summary of Dylan himself.  Haynes took a shortcut by casting six lead actors as seven different “personalities” (none of whom are technically named Bob Dylan, but, well, come on), and, by all accounts, has succeeded in portraying the life of the 20th Century’s Walt Whitman.  It’s only fitting that a poet would be portrayed with such poetic obscurity.
In much the same way, the I’m Not There album is almost as noteworthy for what it’s missing as it is for what’s there.  Nobody dares to tackle “Like a Rolling Stone,” which is probably a wise move; not even live takes of the song from 1966 capture the same thunder that Dylan and company lay down on Highway 61 Revisited.  Also absent is former “Next Dylan” Conor Oberst, who has been known to cover “Girl From the North Country” in concert.
Backing about a third of the album’s electric tracks is indie supergroup the Million Dollar Bashers, composed of Television’s Tom Verlaine, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, Wilco’s Nels Cline, and John Medeski of Medeski, Martin, and Wood.  The group comes close to matching “that thin, that wild mercury sound” that Dylan so-famously demanded in the Blonde on Blonde sessions, particularly when tearing through the Stephen Malkmus-fronted “Maggie’s Farm.”  Here, Malkmus’ slurry speak-singing finds its sonic forebear in the Bringing it All Back Home track.  Eddie Vedder fronts the Bashers in a predictably furious performance of “All Along the Watchtower” that comes close to topping the famed Jimi Hendrix version.  Casting Ranaldo, Verlaine, and Cline as the group’s guitarists was a particularly inspired choice; no other guitarists have captured the bitter liquid of Highway 61-era Dylan since Michael Butterfield laid down the original tracks forty years ago.  Having one of the most dynamic organists in music in Medeski certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Elsewhere, the Hold Steady turn in a version of Blonde on Blonde B-side “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?,” a track whose preachy organs and drawling pleas for love seem to have been custom-written for Craig Finn and co.  Yo La Tengo win the Cate Blanchett Award for sounding exactly like the Man in “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”  “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is the only song here that sounds as if it were recorded and engineered on ancient reel-to-reels, a quality that lends alarming authenticity to the track’s piano rolls and half-leads.
But this record succeeds most when it’s at its quietest.  Following Los Lobos’ stunning Texas polka version of “Billy” is Jeff Tweedy’s take on Blood on the Tracks’ “Simple Twist of Fate.”  Tweedy’s voice, which, like Dylan’s, has never been his strongest point, cracks in all of the right places as he leads Glenn Kotche’s drums and David Mansfield’s fiddle through the song’s turns.  Sufjan Stevens and John Doe each redeem some of Dylan’s much-maligned gospel material, Doe being particularly successful with Saved’s “Pressing On.”
Of course, there are stumbles here.  Jack Johnson turns “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” into, well, a Jack Johnson song, and Iron & Wine’s take on “Dark Eyes” is a bit too New Age-y for my taste.  And the Black Keys, for all of their talent, seem to have had trouble moving their sound forward; “The Wicked Messenger” is a failure only because their style has grown tired.
By virtue of its length and scope, I’m Not There drags at times.  But when viewed as a whole, it’s a remarkable testament to the man who wrote all of these songs that such a varied group of musicians can count him as a primary influence.  It’s at times easy to remember that these songs are all Bob Dylan’s; his material seems to lend itself to interpretation.  And, in the spirit of the film I’m Not There, the poetic license that is taken with Dylan’s songs (particularly by Richie Havens, who turns the ramblin’ “Tombstone Blues” into a hell of a folk jam) does a better job of telling the story of the songwriter than a straight-up tribute record possibly could have.

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