On Things Have Changed, Bettye LaVette offers reinventions of a dozen Bob Dylan songs. Taking liberties with such revered material is always a risky move, but the soul singer makes these songs feel new again, subverting them and, in the process, finding new layers of meaning within them. It’s an act of reclamation that recalls what Dylan himself did on his Great American Songbook albums, like 2017’s Triplicate. There’s also precedent for these bold reinterpretations in Dylan’s own live performances, which routinely find him refashioning his standards to sound like entirely new compositions.
Adding to the album’s fresh feel is the fact that LaVette’s mostly working from recent Dylan songs or relative obscurities. With the exception of “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” nothing here quite qualifies as a warhorse. The original melody of that well-known song is totally stripped away, replaced by a steady backbeat, dry keyboards, and grinding guitar solos; the song is transformed from acoustic folk to fiery funk. But as wildly as she deviates from the hallowed original, LaVette doesn’t lose the song’s central thematic thread, as her combative, upbeat rendering highlights the defiance in Dylan’s lyrics.
Elsewhere, LaVette chooses songs from minor Dylan albums, redeeming material that was initially marred by poor production. “What Was It You Wanted” originally appeared on Oh Mercy, an album largely stifled by producer Daniel Lanois’s heavy-handed atmospherics; here, it’s beholden to a breezy, seductive soul groove. “Emotionally Yours” first appeared on Empire Burlesque, Dylan’s most overt flirtation with synthesizers and drum machines. The album hasn’t aged well, but LaVette’s entirely acoustic arrangement of the song evokes the spare performances of Dylan’s early-’60s work.
But all of LaVette’s bold ideas can’t completely save Things Have Changed from some of its own problems. The singer recorded the album with drummer and producer Steve Jordan, a veteran session player who’s worked with Dylan himself. Jordan keeps these songs crisp and lean, but he favors a “classic rock” palette that’s heavy on electric guitar solos, gently propulsive drumming, and simmering organ, all of which can make the album feel monochromatic. The worst offender is “Political World,” another Oh Mercy cut that’s played here with a genteel island rhythm; the result is a draggy reggae-lite jam session that might appear on an album by Eric Clapton or Keith Richards. (The latter actually appears on the track as a guest guitarist.)
Even when the production feels a shade too restrained, however, LaVette transcends it with gritty, impassioned performances—chewing on every rich word and malleable melody. The title track is just the kind of material on which she thrives; over seven minutes, LaVette ratchets up the intensity, delivering wistfulness, vulnerability, and tough-talking attitude in equal measure. She’s similarly compelling on the ballads like “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” which give her a chance to relax into smoldering grooves. Songs like those find Things Have Changed making good on its promise: the chance to hear a legendary interpretive singer reach deep into one of pop music’s richest songbooks, and to refashion its contents in her own image.