There have been many attempts at covering Bob Dylan songs, with entire albums devoted to Dylan interpretations: Odetta Sings Dylan, Wynn Plays Dylan, Bryan Ferry’s Dylanesque and Joan Osborne’s Songs of Dylan immediately come to mind without too much anxiety. Relative new kid on the block Emma Swift has thrown her hat into the ring with Blonde on the Tracks. The calibre of musicians involved immediately raises expectations, with Pat Sansone (Wilco; the Autumn Defence and also a talented photographer) credited as producer as well as playing guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion, and Robyn Hitchcock (The Soft Boys, The Egyptians, The Venus 3) on guitar. Hitchcock himself has released a Dylan cover album of his own, Robyn Sings.
Dylan is perhaps popular to cover due to the quality and variety of his songs, however re-interpreting a Dylan song can be a tricky business when Dylan himself has usually already recorded it in such a definitive, idiosyncratic way.
Although almost all listeners to Blonde on the Tracks will have some preconceptions about Bob Dylan, this should not be the case for Emma Swift; as yet she is not a “big name” (and may not wish to be). An Australian living in Nashville (and let’s not get started on authenticity, as Australia has country music too), she released her debut EP in 2014 and has released singles with Robyn Hitchcock.
In itself this relative obscurity may be a positive for releasing a Dylan cover album, as a project of this sort comes pre-loaded with all sorts of unfortunate prejudices. Dylanoligists, and even the casual fan, are likely to be highly opinionated as to how the songs should be performed and on the choice of material, so not having any particular view in advance on the poor artist attempting it, may well give them a fighting chance of not being mercilessly criticised.
Many of the songs Swift has chosen to cover are known as “classics” from Dylan’s most beloved albums, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks (and hence the imaginative hybrid title of the album, Blonde on the Tracks). In itself therefore the selection is brave, but the ambition of Blonde on the Tracks is also indicated by Swift recording “I Contain Multitudes” from Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways; Dylan only very recently released this himself and the track received a high level of attention as a pre-release to the album, the first original material since Tempest in 2012.
Further, “I Contain Multitudes” is not necessarily an easy song to perform due to the grizzled, impressionistic original. On the face of it the song is a personal self-assessment as Dylan compares himself to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the “British bad boys”, the Rolling Stones and as an older man, he is singing “the songs of experience like William Blake”. Sensibly Swift does not attempt to change the lyrics to fit a female perspective here or, on any of the other songs on the album, but she certainly makes the listener reconsider the songs from a woman’s perspective. On “I Contain Multitudes” the female sensuality of her vocal pushes the song into a new narrative; rollicking and frolicking with all the young dudes becomes a different proposition sung by Swift, as does the now more complex proclamation that “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods”. Is Swift singing it caustically back to a man? Is her “man” the man of generic mankind, or was she singing about something completely different, man?
Swift’s choice of songs matched with her sweet mellifluous voice means that gender is a consistent undercurrent of Blonde on the Tracks. Dylan suggested in 1965 that the Queen Jane of “Queen Jane Approximately” was male (perhaps to put journalists off the trail of the possible subject – Joan Baez or others), but the scorn poured on the Queen Jane in the original, by a male singer, has a more compassionate side here when sung to a fellow woman.
Similarly “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is transformed from Dylan’s forceful and belligerent original, with its full-on instrumentation, into a softer tale of regret with deep country inflections and pedal steel by Thayer Serrano. “You’re A Big Girl Now” is converted from an entreaty to a lover to a self-directed pep talk, with Swift turning on a golden country accent (Nashville, not Wagga Wagga) and delivering a femme fatale vocal.
Swift turns “The Man In Me”, a song usually sung from a man’s perspective to a woman, on its head. Sung without irony but, with feminine humour. Swift subtly emphasises the refrain, to “get through to the man in me” or “find the man in me”, the woman shows she has all the power to remove herself from the relationship, but empathise with the man’s position. Move over, Maude Lebowski.
Putting analysis of these concepts aside, this is a great sounding record. “Queen Jane Approximately” is a wash of wonderful Byrds-like six string jangle, but with a conversational, immediate vocal. Overall the record has a sound of its own: warm and deep, and at times similar to Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric production on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball or Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. The epic “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which takes up an entire side of vinyl on Blonde on Blonde and is an even longer version here, is obfuscated by echo ensuring an element of mysterious grandeur. Swift’s singing is frequently impressive; on “Going Going Gone” she turns out some great vibrato and “Simple Twist of Fate” benefits from being more emotively sung than the matter of fact original.
It’s a compliment and not a criticism to say that the musicianship on this album is not flashy, and it’s possible to take this album as traditional, straight Americana. But I’d suggest behind the smouldering, smoky sensuality of this record is the greedy wolf of “I Contain Multitudes”, but in sheep’s clothing; subversive in its’ choice of material and with a ruthlessly seductive delivery. As they say in Nashville: mate, this one’s a beaut.
Label: Self released
Release Date: 14 AUG 2020