Bob Dylan has been on a roll over the past few years. Since his excellent June 2020 studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways, he has released additional installments from his bootleg series, one of which I reviewed here, and a concert film, Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, timed to his 80th birthday. The maestro has also been busy being on the road as part of his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, which is currently in Spain. Now he’s out with Shadow Kingdom, a companion album to the above film, and it’s a true beauty!
Folks who visit this blog frequently or are aware of my music taste otherwise know my relationship with Mr. Zimmerman has been complicated. After I had seen him for the first and to date only time in Germany in the late ’80s and felt pretty bummed, Dylan essentially fell off my radar screen. Many years later, I heard something from one of his American Songbook releases and wasn’t exactly excited either. Then Rough and Rowdy Ways happened, and everything changed. And, yes, my music taste has also evolved since that doomed 1989 concert in Dortmund.
Back to Shadow Kingdom, Dylan’s 40th studio album and second soundtrack, which dropped last Friday (June 2). For an artist who as Apple Music correctly noted “has always seemed to take unusual pleasure in turning whatever it is the public thinks he is inside-out”, at first sight, the track list includes a surprising number of well-known songs – unlike the above concert, which opened with Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door only to proceed with obscure songs thereafter. But it wouldn’t be Zimmy without a few surprises.
The first thing you notice when listening to Shadow Kingdom is the “missing” drums. All of the recordings, which prominently feature accordion and upright bass, have a stripped-back feel to them. Most of the remaining instruments are acoustic guitars and Dylan’s harmonica. This gives the album a rootsy vibe, which I liked from the get-go and did so even more with each additional round of listening, and I’m up to five now.
Another peculiar thing is there are no official credits for Dylan’s backing musicians, which is a bit strange, in my opinion. However, this Glide Magazine review reveals some of the mystery musicians, including T-Bone Burnett (acoustic and electric guitar), Greg Leisz (multi-instrumentalist) and Don Was (upright bass). Perhaps another surprise is that Dylan’s vocals while weathered still sound pretty vibrant. Sometimes there’s even a bit of vibrato. But don’t worry, he didn’t go opera!
Okay, I would say that’s enough for the upfront. Let’s take a look at some music. The album opens with When I Paint My Masterpiece, which Dylan wrote in 1971 and which was first recorded by The Band for their fourth studio album Cahoots released in September 1971. Dylan’s original first appeared in November 1971 on the compilation Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. It does sound slightly different on Shadow Kingdom, but you didn’t expect anything different, did cha?
Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine has been among the Dylan songs I always liked unlike some others – okay, I’ll stop the sniping! Originally, Zimmy wrote that song for his seventh studio album Blonde on Blonde, which came out in June 1966, falling smack in his ’60s period I tend to like the most.
I was quite delighted to see Shadow Kingdom features three tracks that originally appeared on my favorite Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited released in August 1965. Here’s one of them: Tombstone Blues.
Shadow Kingdom also features some “more recent” Dylan tunes. Case in point: What Was It You Wanted, off Oh Mercy, his 26th album that came out in September 1989.
Dylan’s lullaby for his eldest son Jesse Forever Young first appeared in January 1974 on his 14th studio album Planet Waves. There was a slow-pace and a fast-pace version. Dylan’s rendition on Shadow Kingdom is definitely closer to the slow version.
I’ll leave you with one more track: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, one of the first Dylan songs I ever heard. This tune first appeared on his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home released in April 1965, the first to abandon the protest music on Zimmy’s earlier records.
The songs on Shadow Kingdom were recorded on a sound stage in early 2021 at Village Recorder in West Los Angeles to accompany the film, which was directed by Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har’el. The black and white film was shot over seven days while Dylan was sidelined from touring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It premiered in July 2021 via the livestream platform Veeps.com and should be available for download and rental as of today (Tuesday, June 6). Shadow Kingdom was produced by, well, nobody – right, remember no credits!
As noted at the outset, I enjoy what Dylan has done here and suspect most of his fans will agree. That said, I doubt Shadow Kingdom will give the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter many if any new listeners. But this extraordinary artist has written so many great songs over his 60-year-plus-and-counting-career, he doesn’t need to prove himself any longer, plus he has always danced to his own rhythm. Last but not least, when you sell your songwriting catalog for an amount estimated at north of $200 million, you really don’t need to worry about music sales any longer! Here’s a Spotify link to the album:
Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Glide Magazine; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify