Bob Dylan’s weird and (mostly) wonderful ‘Shadow Kingdom’

Bob Dylan’s gifts to us these past few years have come with a caveat. His 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” was both welcome and unexpected. But though it had a few good songs, it was also overpraised, as most of his work has been since he revived his career in 1997 with the luminous “Time Out of Mind.” (Yes, the latter stages of his career have been going on for nearly a quarter-century now.)

So, too, with his streaming performance “Shadow Kingdom,” which went live on July 18 and supposedly expired on July 20 — although it still seems to be up for paying customers. As with “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” it did not deserve quite the degree of praise it received, as in this Pitchfork review. But it was pretty good nevertheless, and wonderfully weird in some very Dylanesque ways.

“Shadow Kingdom” features 12 songs from earlier in Dylan’s career, although only one, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which closed the 50-minute set, was from his pre-electric period. Dylan was fully engaged with the material, and he had a first-rate, mostly acoustic band (no drummer) behind him. But though his enunciation was unusually clear and precise, his voice was pretty hard to take at times. I will defend Dylan’s singing during the peak years of his career to anyone. But it’s really been going downhill since “Modern Times,” his last great album, released in 2006.

“Shadow Kingdom” is not a live concert. Rather, it’s a film, shot in luxurious black and white, some of it with actors in an old-timey nightclub, some of it with just him and his fellow musicians. Everyone smokes. There is probably more smoke wafting through the air than at a Philip Morris board meeting, assuming they even allow smoking anymore.

The songs were chosen wisely. I’d describe them as middling Dylan — not his best-known, but not obscure, either. A few got a fairly straightforward treatment, including “To Be Alone with You” and “Pledging My Time.” Others were radically rearranged, such as “Tombstone Blues,” one of the greatest rock-and-roll songs of all time, presented here with Dylan playing the Beat poet narrating over a hipster soundtrack. “Forever Young” is deeply moving.

For an artist who seemed to be washed up in the 1980s, Dylan’s revival during the past few decades has been remarkable. He turned 80 recently, and he looks it and sounds it. COVID has kept him off the road; you have to wonder whether he’ll be up for another tour once it’s safe again.

It’s a shame that “Shadow Kingdom” came and went so quickly. I hope it’s made more widely available, because it’s a fascinating document about one of the greatest artists of the past century. I’m not sure if you can still buy a ticket, but if you want to try, here you go.

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Album #1: Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’

When I began compiling my list of top 25 albums a year ago, I already knew who it would end with: Bob Dylan, the master, one of the 20th century’s leading songwriters, Nobel Prize-winning poet, still going strong after turning 80 this past Monday.

But what album would I choose? Something from his early acoustic folkie years? Well, no. I prefer Dylan the rocker. His middle period, just after he’d gone electric but before the motorcycle crash that would end the white-hot-genius phase of his career? His mid-’1970s comeback? What about his entirely unexpected return to relevance, when he released three albums from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s that were just a half-notch below his greatest work?

My choice came down to two albums: “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), the greatest rock-and-roll record ever made, and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), his most personal album, a suite of songs about heartbreak and loss that is brilliant in its conception and execution. His singing, always wildly expressive, is at its best on both. So — how to choose?

For me, it has to be “Blood on the Tracks.” You might call this album my gateway drug into the larger world of Dylan’s music. It was released just as I was ready to listen. It’s accessible in a way that few of his albums are, devoid of the obscurantism that characterizes even some of his best work, including “Highway 61.” (That said, I’ve listened to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” one of the anchors on “Blood,” maybe a few hundred times over the years and I still can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, even though it seems fairly straightforward on the surface. I think it’s because it’s all foreground with virtually no background.)

My favorite song on the album, and a contender for my favorite Dylan song ever, is “Idiot Wind,” nearly eight minutes of vitriol dedicated, I guess you’d say, to his then-wife, Sara, from whom he was in the process of divorcing. The story he tells ain’t pretty, and I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman didn’t deserve it. But it is great art. Dylan knows exactly how it’s going to land, so he eases into it with a hilarious shaggy-dog story and ends with a few unconvincing lines in which he attempts to cast himself as co-malefactor. But the middle — oh, my God. If I’m listening in my car, here’s the part makes me nearly drive off the road:

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the
springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

The way Dylan stretches out and twists “slowly” kills me every time I hear it.

Every song on “Blood on the Tracks” is a revelation. It kicks off with “Tangled Up in Blue,” a strange song that mashes several different narratives together, centuries apart, and that serves as a commentary, I suppose, on the ’60s and what he was leaving behind. It would become one of his signature songs, along with “Blowing in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” depict Dylan at his most vulnerable. (Dylan has said “Blood on the Tracks” is not about him. But Dylan himself is a character played by Robert Zimmerman.)

Even the seeming trifles, which close what used to be sides one and two (they made these things out of vinyl, and you’d play them with a needle, and — well, never mind), serve their purpose. “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” anticipates his lover’s eventual departure even in the midst of their relationship. “Buckets of Rain,” which follows “Shelter from the Storm,” itself a kinder meditation on love, gives us a chance to just relax and come down a bit as we begin to process what we’ve just heard.

And then there’s a song that didn’t even make it onto the album — “Up to Me,” which popped up on the “Biograph” compilation in 1985. It sounds a lot like “Shelter from the Storm,” and it would have been a career highlight for almost any other artist.

If you love “Blood on the Tracks,” I’d recommend a book about its making called “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. It tells the story of Dylan’s early attempts to record the songs with studio musicians in New York and his decision to re-record most of it in Minneapolis with local musicians and the help of his brother, David Zimmerman. It was not a great band, despite what Gill and Odegard argue, but they bring a sense of urgency to the proceedings that was missing from the New York sessions.

If you’ve never quite gotten around to Dylan, I recommend you start with “Blood on the Tracks.” It might turn out to be where you end up, too.

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Happy birthday, Bob Dylan!

Bob Dylan, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, is so mindbogglingly prolific that he’s recorded songs that would have made a lesser musician’s career — yet he left them off his albums because they didn’t fit or because, well, he’s Dylan and who knows what he was thinking?

Among his greatest: “Up to Me,” an outtake from 1973’s “Blood on the Tracks” (“In 14 months I’ve only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously”), and “Blind Willie McTell” (left off 1983’s “Infidels” even though it would have the best song on the album).

“Red River Shore” (above), an outtake from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind,” isn’t quite in that league. There’s some awkwardness in the lyrics that Dylan hadn’t quite worked out. Maybe that’s why he didn’t release it at the time; instead, it popped up on “Tell Tale Signs,” a collection of odds and ends from his later years. But it might be my favorite Dylan outtake because of the ancient feel. Even with the electric guitar, it sounds like it could have been recorded 100 years ago.

The collaboration between Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois was magic — and here’s further evidence of that.

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The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to … Bob Dylan

I was thrilled to learn this morning that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although it’s a lifetime achievement award, he could have won 50 years ago just for “Visions of Johanna.”

I also hope his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One” is part of his Nobel portfolio. It is a stunning work that tells the largely fictional tale of a character named Bob Dylan. As Dylan once said, quoting Rimbaud, “I is another.”

Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial. Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile.

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Happy 70th birthday, Bob Dylan


He means more to me now than ever. And who would have thought 25 years ago that he’d be so vital and productive in his 50s and 60s?

Was the moon landing faked, too?

What do global-warming deniers have in common with creationists? More than you might think. They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five.

Dylan at twilight

Dylan meets the Obamas (White House photo; click on image for larger size)

There are so many Bob Dylans that I don’t want to read too much into this. For all we know, Dylan will hit the road with Pearl Jam next year and play a couple hundred hard-rock shows. But two lovely videos suggest that he is settling into the twilight of his career following his unexpected triumphs of the past dozen or so years.

I’ll deal with the better-known example first: his recent performance at the White House of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Backed by just Tony Garnier on upright bass and pianist Patrick Warren, Dylan offers an interesting contrast. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his guitar (in fact, he’s spent most of his time on stage in recent years randomly stabbing at an electronic keyboard), and he stops and starts several times. Yet he’s right on top of it vocally, singing a downbeat version of what was once a confident anthem. It bears repeated viewing — and listening.

The second is a live-in-the-studio version of Woodie Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” (it’s the second video here). Dylan plays guitar, accompanied by Ry Cooder on electric guitar and Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, of all people, on piano. As with the White House performance, Dylan’s singing combines his characteristic ragged edges with a softness and sweetness that I’ve rarely heard from him before.

I’m struck by what an effective, evocative singer Dylan can still be when his quiet rasp isn’t being overwhelmed by a full band. I’m also struck by the humility of these performances. The elderly-Western-gunslinger persona that he adopted during the past decade has been replaced by something more natural, more human.

None of us knows how much Dylan’s got left to give. His collaboration last year with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter, “Together Through Life,” was fun, but hardly up to his recent standards. His Christmas album was largely a joke, though I like the video for “Must Be Santa.” He is 68 years old and has a lot of miles on his odometer.

But he’s still capable of surprising us — and moving us.

Dylan’s first-rate second-rate album

I’ve listened to Bob Dylan’s latest CD, “Together Through Life,” a number of times now, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The assessment that rings truest to me is this: at the age of 67, Dylan has, for the first time in his long career, succeeded in making a terrific second-rate album.

What I mean is that nearly every album Dylan’s ever made has been a masterpiece or close to it; an attempted masterpiece that falls short in some important way; or an utter embarrassment. The stakes are always high, and usually too high. On “Together Through Life,” by contrast, it sounds like he went into the studio to have fun and managed to convey that sense of fun to us listeners. Not that it’s going to be everyone’s idea of a good time — some of the lyrics are pretty dark. What matters is that nothing here is weighed down by any deep sense of portentous meaningfulness.

Dylan accomplished that mainly by collaborating with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter on all but one song. There’s nothing like offloading the lyrical load to remove the weight of critics’ poring over Dylan’s words to try to figure out what he’s trying to say. (Not to mention tracking down his sources for evidence of what might be called over-enthusiastic borrowing.)

Everyone’s been obsessing over the Bruce Davidson cover shot. I’ve chosen instead to include the back cover, by Josef Koudelka, because it looks exactly like “Together Through Life” sounds — like a rough Tex-Mex band whose lead instrument, incongruously enough, is an accordian. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an old-fashioned blues with an accordian as prominent as it is on “My Wife’s Home Town,” a creepy, ancient-sounding song that — despite the Willie Dixon credit — could be a lost Howlin’ Wolf track.

Straight-ahead, uptempo songs like “If You Ever Go to Houston,” “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama” give Dylan some good new live material. The slow ones? Well, let’s just say there’s no “Nettie Moore” or “Red River Shore” here. The slow songs, especially the Hunter-less “This Dream of You,” mainly serve as mood music.

And can we please stop obsessing over Dylan’s voice? Yes, it’s shot, and it has been for quite some time. But vocal qualities aside, the man is one of the great singers in the history of rock and roll, with unmatched phrasing and urgency. His singing is one of the main pleasures of listening to his new album.

I don’t know how much I’ll be listening to “Together Through Life” six months from now. The album doesn’t rank with his comeback trilogy of the past decade (“Time Out of Mind,” “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times”), but it’s not intended to.

It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. I’d give it three and a half stars out of five.