For a world-famous guy, Bob Dylan sure is hard to pin down. During a rich career spanning nearly 50 years, Dylan's been sinner, saint, icon, and charlatan, and always maintained a hazy veneer of mystery. Who is he, really? Which is why covering Bob Dylan songs is practically a musical genre in and of itself – tackling one of Dylan's songs and trying to bring something new to it is the ultimate challenge.
Todd Haynes' adventurous new film I'm Not There looks at the Dylan mystique by wrangling up six separate actors to play Dylan. The accompanying 2-CD soundtrack does even better, getting more than 30 different musicians to have a try at being Bob. The resulting I'm Not There soundtrack is a fantastic cover party for Dylan fans, or any lover of homespun Americana. With a cast including Willie Nelson, Sonic Youth, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Cat Power, and more, it's an eclectic blast through Dylan's back pages.
Covering Dylan is tricky – try too hard to sound like Dylan, and you come off like a karaoke act. The key to covering Dylan is to make it sound like the brilliant lyrics are coming out of your heart. We see that here with Cat Power's sultry, sexy take on "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" or Jeff Tweedy's "Simple Twist of Fate," both of which could fit comfortably in their own compositions. Country-folk mystics Calexico pop up on several tracks, including a marvelous tumbleweed-strewn "One More Cup Of Coffee" done with Roger McGuinn.
Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan growls through a bristly "Man In The Long Black Coat," while Pavement's Steven Malkmus gets sinister on "Ballad of A Thin Man" and snidely outraged on "Maggie's Farm." Sufjan Stevens does a baroque-pop spin on "Ring Them Bells," while Yo La Tengo loosens up for a fine juke-joint stomp through "I Wanna Be Your Lover." Seventy-six-year-old Rambin' Jack Elliott takes "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" back into the past for a bluegrassy ramble, and Antony and the Johnsons turn "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" into a gloriously gloomy deathbed hymn.
Not everything works – Charlotte Gainsbourg's breathless take on "Just Like A Woman" is a placid slog. But the soundtrack is strong mostly because it avoids the obvious – no "Blowin' In The Wind" or "Like A Rolling Stone" covers here. Generally, a charmingly unpretentious, singing-around-the-campfire feeling dominates.
A particular highlight here is the inclusion of a rare, never before publicly released, track from the famed <i>Basement Tapes</i>, Bob Dylan and The Band performing "I'm Not There" in the summer of 1967. This is almost worth the price of admission itself, one of the legendary "lost" Dylan songs. Critic Greil Marcus, in his book-length take on the <i>Basement Tapes</i>, The Old Weird America, calls "I'm Not There" "a trance, a waking dream, a whirpool," noting there's "nothing like it … anywhere else in Dylan's career." It's a hypnotic, forlorn drone of a song, one that builds into a stark and gorgeous abandonment. It fits nicely at the end of almost two hours of tribute to Dylan's songs, as a way of reminding us despite all the fine cover tunes, the original is still impossible to copy –
"And I'm also hesitating by temptation lest it runs
Which it don't follow me
But I'm not there, I'm gone"
"I'm Not There" now sounds like a lost piece of Americana, a should've-been-hit from a twilight zone 1960s. A gauzy psychedelic cover of the tune by Sonic Youth is the second song on the set, and Dylan's looming original stands firmly at the end. Full of as much meaning as you choose to dig out of it, it's a song that sums up a lot of Dylan's strange and persistent power. The I'm Not There soundtrack will get you looking at the many faces of Dylan in whole new ways.