Shadow Kingdom

Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan – Wikipedia

Recorded: ?

Released: July 18, 2021

Bonus! Dylan’s “broadcast event”… “filmed performance”… “series of linked music videos”… The latter probably is most accurate. Pitchfork said: “As he sings in dusky rooms filled with cigarette smoke and lamplight, mannequins and Western characters, the whole thing takes on a surreal, ghostlike quality.” 

I’ve watched the whole thing three times, I think, and it’s a real pleasure. What this showcases is Dylan’s skill as a song interpreter… with the twist that these are all his own songs. These aren’t ramshackle tossed off run throughs; these are fundamental reimaginings of the songs that fit where Dylan is now. Given the ravages to his voice over the 30 to 55 years since he wrote these songs, he obviously changed how he sings them, but the changes to the musical settings in many cases are at least as fundamental. If you think this is how all these songs would have sounded if had recorded them for “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, you’ll be close (maybe that’s when he came up with these arrangements?) There also are lyric changes, and they’re interesting, but I don’t think they change the songs in a meaningful way.

There are a couple songs that don’t work as well for me: “Watching the River Flow”, “To Be Alone With You”, perhaps… it still feels like he hasn’t quite found the way to sing them with this current vocal abilities. But these are the exceptions.

Highlights for me:

  • Beautiful version of “Forever Young”. Seeing and hearing him do this at the age of 80 is moving, but if the performance wasn’t great, it would just be sad. But the performance is great, perhaps best version of this song ever.
  • “Queen Jane Approximately”: one of my least favorite songs from “Highway 61 Revisited” comes across beautifully in Dylan’s new mode.
  • “Tombstone Blues”. This is insane. Instead of the driving blues rock of the original, It verges on spoken word, delivered over a barely there ominous accompaniment. A prophetic vision, recited as if he’s receiving it in real time.
  • “What Was It You Wanted”. This was the biggest surprise for me. First, “Shadow Kingdom” was billed as “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan”, which I and everyone else assumed would mean the 1960s and maybe early 70s, and this is form 1989’s “Oh Mercy”. Second, while I really like Oh Mercy, it could barely crack the Top 10 of Dylan’s albums. And finally, “What Was It You Wanted” is my second least favorite song on the whole album (“Disease of Conceit” comes in last). And yet, this was a stunning performance. I feel like the song never existed before, even though Dylan’s singing actually is quite similar to the Oh Mercy version. Perhaps the melody just perfectly fits where his voice currently is at. Perhaps the stark stripped down arrangement gives room for the essence of the song to come through. And perhaps the message of paranoia, isolation, wondering what does this other person want? Is that a kiss of betrayal? is just so spot on. 

As of now (July 24, 2021), this performance is set to disappear in a day or so. I expect it will come out again in a permanent form. Whenever you have the chance, take a listen. It will change the way you imagine these songs, and change your view of what Dylan can do.

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