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.