Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
“He would pull these songs out of nowhere,” said guitarist Robbie Robertson of Bob Dylan’s output in the summer of 1967. “We didn’t know if he wrote them, or if he remembered them.”
After a whirlwind six years, when he reinvented popular music and shaped sets of stylistic blueprints which are still in use, Dylan crashed, literally and metaphorically.
His recuperation involved innumerable playful sessions with The Band at their house in up-state New York, during which they explored new songs, ancient songs and ragged surreal jams.
This week, 138 of the tracks they taped for fun are released. The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 are both a crucial pop touchstone and contemporary musical talisman.
But there was even more.
This time last year, Dylan rang his friend and sometimes collaborator T Bone Burnett and revealed that he had a box of lyrics written around that time. When he asked Burnett if he could do anything with them, the man who supervised the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? didn’t need persuading.
His idea was to approach the task in an adventurous spirit similar to the original basement sessions. He’s described the musicians he invited to get involved as “music archaeologists” who knew “how to dig without breaking the thing they were digging”.
Everyone pitched in, writing and performing across a range of songs. This album has 15 tracks. The deluxe version has another five. Sources say there’s another bunch that may eventually be released.
Remarkably, this doesn’t sound like a compilation album. Or one of those patchy tribute albums.
Burnett’s ability to create a sound that, in itself, tells a story is probably why Dylan rang him in the first place. There are many wonderful surprises in this package.
The front of house crew include Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens (The Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Jim James is particularly impressive, capable of tender vulnerability while capturing a sense of night terrors on Down In The Bottom. On Hidee Hidee Ho #11, his mischievous phrasing matches Dylan’s ability to turn a single syllable into a jazz riff.
Rhiannon Giddens stamps a powerful folk authority on Spanish Mary. With rattling old-timey banjo and declamatory voice, she nails Duncan and Jimmy.
Costello taps into his wired younger persona and feels perfectly at home with Dylan’s acrobatic wordplay, Bo Diddley meets Tennessee Williams on Married To My Hack.
Marcus Mumford pitches Stranger (“Never fall in love with a stranger”) into an anthemic singalong.
Giddens’ turns Lost On The River into a haunting and timeless spiritual. Dylan must surely be very pleased.