Review: Bob Dylan, Triplicate

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Bob Dylan, Triplicate album art

I often wonder if the artist I am writing about is going to read the review I write of their new record. Especially if their latest entry is subpar but not representative of my fandom. I almost want to write an addendum — to the artist directly, perhaps covered with a password, to save face if we ever meet (we won’t). In this case, I have no fear. He probably doesn’t own a computer, he probably calls his manager from a rotary phone installed on his tour bus and types letters on the same typewriter from the 60’s. He wasn’t affected by the winds of change then, why would he be now? I feel completely free to tell you what I actually think ofIn Triplicate.

It's good, in the worst possible way. Triplicate is like finding out Andy Griffith is on every channel for the next month, and Netflix signed an Andy Griffith only agreement for 30 days. Andy Griffith is a good show, but after about 2-3 episodes you are ready for some Bachelor or Golden State Warriors or Rick and Morty, or really anything else.

You can attempt to package it differently than Sinatra covers by pointing out that many artists have covered all of these songs, but the unifying thread is Sinatra himself recorded all except one (“Beggin’”) across these last five records. I have two major purpose theories, but first a walkthrough.

Opener “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” has a warm autumn feel, some tender horns and a retiring vocal performance from Dylan, like he sang right before he hit the hay at 7:30. It’s a solid track, whether you want to hear 29 more that have almost no differentiation other than tempo or lyrics is the main crux of whether you will dig this record or not. “Hey want to hang and listen to 30 Bob Dylan covers of Frank Sinatra?” It’s a pretty easy and polarizing question. For me, the answer is, yes, yes I do. Rather than trying to find something different to say about tracks that have fewer differences than an ambient record, let me cherry pick some highlights and issues for you, and let the wise one among us make an Apple Music playlist and enjoy the best 30 rather than 90 minutes of this fully stuffed record.

“September of My Years” and its immediate follower “I Could Have Told You” march at a slow but enjoyable pace, like a walk in the woods with no watch or clock and nowhere to get to. The band’s groove is sublime, hitting that spot where it's impossible to tell if there is a metronome and no need to find out. The latter of the two is a heartbreaker with a memorable late-career vocal performance from Dylan. Hearing his voice begin to crack in the 90’s made it hard to tell that it would settle in this rusty grandpa-core cave of perpetual gruffness. His voice sounds worn like your dad’s leather jacket, unexpectedly familiar, like seeing the Mt. Rushmore with your own eyes after only seeing it in pictures. It's familiar even though technically it’s the first time. “Stormy Weather” is one of the weaker tracks, its pacing can’t keep up with its message. An actual storm sounds more entertaining than this funeral march. It also suffers not from what it is, but its placement on the record, after three 1mph songs, a pickup number would have proven strong.

The guitar on “This Was Nearly Done” is dreamy without distortion, the clean opposite to a My Bloody Valentine guitar, simple, unadorned, and whimsical. The song was originally from the South Pacific musical on Broadway, later turned into a film. The Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version from 1958 is unbearably dated in its vocal performance, but the strings carry a classic Disney sound that almost makes up for it. The point being, Dylan’s old croon is creating a new definitive version of some of these iconic songs. “Trade Winds” tries to save disc one with a slightly better pace and tickling guitars trading moments, it's too little too late with a forty-second intro and only two minutes left, the song never quite gets off the ground. It is at this point that the record theoretically could have ended, 10 tracks, thirty minutes a nice little finale to a trilogy of Sinatra covers. Instead, it is the first chapter in a new trilogy.

Triplicate is like your mouth and pockets are full of Swedish fish and the only thing for sale at the grocery store and Amazon Pantry is Swedish fish and you open your pantry and bags and bags of Swedish fish. It’s a truly overwhelming amount of a somewhat good thing.

“Imagination” is a cute song, and Dylan does it well with a little twinkle in his voice, although its 2 and a half minutes somehow manage to feel like 10. “The Best is Yet to Come” is true taken as a commentary on the record, because the third disc is far better than the second, but it is the only stand out on disc two, partially because the opening hook of the guitar is one of the only moments that any hook is present. The vocal refrain is catchy as well, hearkening back to the stronger late-period records Modern Times and Tempest. I could continue going through the tracks and making observations about different things that work and don’t, but I think the theories are a better way to spend our collective time. I'll just say this — the third disc follows the exact same template of the first with absolutely no difference to the naked eye. Ok, now to the why. Why does there have to be a why? Because this is Bob Dylan, nothing is an accident, nothing is a just because, everything is a measured play at legacy and an earnest cry from his heart to ours.

What if Triplicate and the vastly superior Shadows in the Night and the underrated Fallen Angels weren’t what they seemed to be. Taken together this is more like a five-disc excursion. That’s more records than his 90’s-00’s comeback period or his 70’s comeback period (Planet Waves through Desire). It's only a little less than his classic run in the 60’s depending on how much you dig Nashville Skyline or Freewheelin’. All that to say — this is a lot of music, even for a prolific folk artist, and Bob Dylan never does anything by mistake. It's all a calculated play. I have got two theories for you.

Theory one — these last five records are meant to teach us how to deal with Dylan’s songbook once he is gone. Yes, this is Dylan’s Blackstar, not that he is going to die soon, or even that this is his last chapter, but it is the chapter where he schools us on how to deal with his own large-scale discography. Bob sees himself as a Sinatra of a later generation. Dylan is the most covered artist of all time, wouldn’t he be interested in presenting a blueprint legacy of another artist, only for it to be a hidden representation of his own desire to be remembered in the great American songbook?

Theory two — it has all finally come back full circle. After 50 years, and more than 50 albums, depending on how you count, he has ended where he started. He came to New York in the early sixties to sing some folk songs, now he ends, still singing folk songs. Maybe Bob never saw himself as much more than a folk artist. Each 3-5 record chapter of Bob’s career has a seen an outwardly different and inwardly similar version of himself. Perhaps these five records are highlighting a cyclical rather than linear view of his discography.

1962 – 1964 – Folk singing troubadour
1965 – 1966 – Alienating Pop Genius
1967 - 1969 – Young Country Crooner
1970 – 1972 – Reinvented Sound Painter
1973 – 1974 – Co-conspirator Virtuoso
1975 – 1978 – Mid Career Renaissance Man
1979 – 1981 – Born Again Boss
1983 – 1989 – Time Stamped Artist
1990 – 1993 – Folk Singer Round 2
1997 – 2012 – Late Career Legend
2013 – 2017 – Legacy Teaching Maestro

What’s next Bob? B