Bob Dylan “Shadow Kingdom”

Columbia Records, 2023

Dylan travels in time and space to an imagined European jazz club – reinvention ensues.

The Bootleg series aside, where the occasional historic or archive recording has featured, Bob Dylan is not famed for the number of his live albums.  There’s ‘Hard Rain‘ of course, where he took a savage vigour to songs, and produced a mutilation of ‘Lay Lady Lay‘.  There’s the strangeness of ‘At Budakon‘  where familiar songs are well and truly reimagined and the glory of the with The Band tour documented on ‘Before the Flood.’  His last truly current live release was the MTV unplugged concert from 1995, and there’s a nice synchronicity with ‘Shadow Kingdom‘ which is similarly the soundtrack of a televised concert.  Well, almost – ‘Shadow Kingdom‘ was actually a streamed film project recorded during the pandemic by Alma Har’el – the filming was undertaken over a week on a Santa Monica soundstage and used the conceit that Dylan and his band were playing in an early 20th-century club in Marseille.  So live-ish, and with the period feel enhanced by being shot in art-house black and white.  Across the recording this period, and European, feel does come through clearly – it’s an illusion significantly enhanced by the extensive use of  Shahzad Ismaily’s accordion.

The song choice for ‘Shadow Kingdom‘ doesn’t reflect current material, instead it is a track listing to make the heart of anyone who has ever felt compelled to yell “play something old!” beat a little faster.  ‘Shadow Kingdom‘ is a revisiting of songs mostly from the sixties and seventies with just a few outliers, but in all cases the arrangements have been modified – some extensively – and this does shed new light on the familiar.  Starting proceedings with a harmonica burst and ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece‘ there’s a feel that the song has become a slight comment on the times with Dylan knowingly singing “got to hurry on back to my hotel room /  going to wash my clothes scrape off all of the grease / going to lock the doors and turn my back on the world for a while“.  This doesn’t seem to be such a burden – there’s a laugh in his voice when he adds “someday everything is going to be, ah, different.”  Indeed.

There are some songs like ”Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” which are little changed – same pace and insistence, same feel of a rock song albeit one seen through the distorting lens of Dylan’s own blend of early rock and roll, still emerging from strands of the blues, country and light jazz.  ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight‘ does much the same giving a new interpretation that at first doesn’t stray so far from what one already knows – until the brakes are slammed on and it becomes a drunken sway to the accordion.  Elsewhere things are very different – ‘What Was It You Wanted’ is slow and doom-laden, Dylan changed from the dismissive and in-control questioner of the ‘Oh Mercy‘ original recording. Now his interrogative approach suggests a more confused and tentative state of mind, as things drift in and out of focus – another hint perhaps at the times and the common experience of the pandemic timeshift when every day became the same day and time lost its meaning.  It’s effective in generating an anxious mood.

On a few songs Dylan has made the words the complete focus – ‘Tombstone Blues’ never kicks up into a rock gear, and becomes a spoken-sung poetry recitation with the lightest of accompaniments.   Originally slow songs like ‘Queen Jane Approximately‘ and ‘Pledging My Time‘ stay in their comfort zone.  ‘Forever Young‘ leans into the folkier delivery version, less strident but beautiful in the simplicity of its wishes and delivery.  Noteworthy throughout is the quality of Dylan’s singing – he is in remarkably good voice, ironically this may be due to the very circumstances that prompted this streamed concert film.  This is Dylan’s pandemic album, and the pandemic which prevented Dylan from touring was surely also responsible for an enforced period of rest for his singing voice – and the benefit is clear.

Shadow Kingdom‘ sees Dylan revisiting and reinventing his back catalogue, and although the styles of the songs change across the album there is a great consistency in feel and tone which make it a more valuable undertaking than many other such pandemic albums – this is no quick bit of filler, it’s a thought out and carefully constructed whole.  Offering new insights into familiar songs, which are treated with the care and attention they deserve rather than being radically twisted out of shape, it’s an album that can be widely recommended.  Bob Cats will of course already have bootlegs of the music from the film, others should seriously consider getting this formal release.


About Jonathan Aird 2695 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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