Even Bob Dylan himself would surely admit that, for all his prodigious and endlessly mythologized talents, he’s not the world’s greatest musical interpreter—even of his own songs. While he’s made a couple of other people’s songs his own over the years, few of his early folk covers are definitive. He’s readily admitted to the superiority of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” compared to his own, and, absent of any better ideas, has copped to cribbing live arrangements of his songs from Grateful Dead bootlegs.
Given all that, the ease and deftness with which Dylan has slid into the latest phase of his multitude-containing career—septuagenarian after-hours crooner of the Great American Songbook—is nothing short of remarkable, even shocking. Even after the surprisingly un-terrible Christmas in the Heart, the now tar-voiced Dylan going the Rod Stewart route with Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and now Triplicate seemed misguided at best. But unlike Stewart and others who’ve settled on crooning standards in as schlocky a manner possible, and almost as a means of declaring creative bankruptcy, it’s especially clear from the warm, tasteful, and beautifully sequenced songs here that Dylan’s standards are real artistic statements, premeditated and effective as any of his other recent work.
Considering that it was Dylan himself who had as large a hand as any in ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter, almost instantly transforming the so-called Brill Building style of professional songwriting that birthed the classic pre-rock pop that constitutes Triplicate, perhaps he views these covers as some form of reparation. He’s certainly breathed new life into these songs, unearthing, or at least rediscovering, an emotional gravitas within them.
Dylan accomplishes this, first, by dividing Triplicate into three individually titled 10-song, half-hour chapters, each of which is carefully curated for thematic coherence: ’Til the Sun Goes Down is rueful and ruminative; Devil Dolls is swaggering; and Comin’ Home Late is wide-eyed and sentimental. Given the deteriorated state of his voice and the weary twilight-of-my-years lamenting he’s been doing since Time Out of Mind, it’s little surprise that he’s best suited to the songs on ’Til the Sun Goes Down. Hearing him sing about “gloom and misery everywhere” (“Stormy Weather”) and “dwelling in my personal hell” (“I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”) feels disarmingly close to the bone, especially considering that the era of songwriting he’s exploring is, from a modern perspective, often associated with mawkish bathos.
Even on the album’s few upbeat swingers, Dylan acquits himself well, sounding sly and loose, even if “Braggin’” and “Day In, Day Out” typically demand a little more of a belt than he’s able to supply these days. But it’s useless to complain about Dylan’s voice. People have been doing that since 1962, and even though his throat is undeniably torn to shreds at this point, he’s not doing the growling-bluesman routine he’s been relying on for most of the last 20 years. Rather, he’s really singing, to the extent that he’s still capable. His delivery is tender and delicate, his phrasing measured and sharp, and to the point that the voice cracks and flat notes that do inevitably arise seem by design, only adding to his emotional vulnerability.
Acting as producer under his pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan pristinely captures the subtle dynamics of his live touring band, adding only subdued horn charts by James Harper. The arrangements are stripped down to the core, spearheaded by sighing steel guitar by Donnie Herron and airy, earthy upright bass by Tony Garnier, the Never Ending Tour’s longest-tenured sideman. The effect is a sense that this is how these songs should always be played. This is especially noticeable on such familiar selections as “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “Stardust,” where memories of gloppy strings and showboating Vegas crooning that have plagued so many lesser attempts at them, transforming the sentimental into the saccharine, are wiped away by the band’s supple, lived-in touch and Dylan’s clear, deep respect for the melodies and lyrics.