The best Bob Dylan covers album EVER comes, amazingly, from a woman who doesn’t even particularly like the man’s music: “I’ve never just sat and listened to Dylan. This is strictly the idea of the executive producer,” she told Rolling Stone in a revealing interview, “I have not heretofore been a Dylan fan, per se.”
Yet that lack of reverence is exactly what makes this collection so electric; worshipping at the altar of an artist saps the life out of all too many tribute albums, as take for example the recent Johnny Cash: Forever Words (what words are forever, eh?). 72-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette, who has not even the tiniest fraction of Dylan’s success or fortune despite a 40 year career, has the guts to mess with the Nobel Laureate’s work, adding a ‘fucked up’ or a ‘bullshit’ here, a reference to Bruno Mars there, and swapping the gender pronouns on several tracks (Dylan pulled the same trick to queer “She’s Funny That Way” on this year’s Universal Love EP, so I’m sure he would approve). What’s more, she deletes several verses of “Ain’t Talkin’”, adds her own lines to some songs, and perhaps most impishly of all she chooses to cover tracks mostly from his ’80s to early ’90s “lost” period, which is by far his most critically maligned.
This idiosyncrasy suits the restlessly rebellious nature of Dylan, who of course has been covering other master’s songs himself recently with an equally erratic approach. And it adds so much more to the Dylan canon than just yet more po-faced covers of “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Tangled Up in Blue” etc. It reveals the energy and brilliance hidden deep in the songwriting during his “lost” period, when his performances really were not up to scratch. “Political Science” sounds so much more desperate than it did on Oh Mercy where it was dry as hell, the repetition of “the next day could be your last” in LaVette’s rasp killing you as it continually prods at the open wound that is today’s politics; she sounds like she’s wiping the sweat and tears away from her eyes after every painful utterance.
At the other end of the spectrum, “Mama, You Been On My Mind” soulfully tips the hat to LaVette’s mother where the original seemed to kiss (or piss) off a lover. And “Do Right to Me Baby” actually generates some heat, a fast plane zooming rather than a Slow Train Coming.
All of this eclecticism is impressive and guided by LaVette’s range and responsiveness to the dense lyrics. But it’s also down to a stellar backing band, which includes guitarist Larry Campbell, who was actually in Dylan’s band for years, and drummer Steve Jordan, whose groove never wavers. Plus there’s a guest turn from Keith Richards, and lots of bongo and steel guitar embellishments that keep on surprising. It’s all spare, yet musically dexterous, and packed with flickers of nuance that you won’t get bored of investigating. Much like LaVette’s voice.
About half of the tracks meander too long to reach their destination (particularly “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Emotionally Yours”). And I’m somewhat disappointed that LaVette’s Dylan eschews the zanier, more comedic elements of his character. Yet Dylan is such an enormous, contradictory, and fascinating mess of a figure, that it’s somewhat wrong for me to impose my Dylan on LaVette, who has chosen her own here and has so convincingly argued for it. In fact, it’s more convincing as a whole than anything Dylan’s done since Love and Theft. Which deserves immense respect.