Let’s say you’re a popular musician and someone offers you some old Dylan lyrics that he never set to music. Are you going to pass up a chance to share songwriting credits with Dylan? I certainly wouldn’t. So I can’t blame Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, and Rhiannon Giddens for trying to do just that when given the opportunity.
The songs they wrote and collaborated on in the studio have been collected on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. The subtitle refers to the fact that these lyrics were written in the late ’60s, about the time Dylan was up in Woodstock, N.Y., working on material that would later surface on the fabled Basement Tapes. This furiously productive spell produced a string of classic songs that included “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and “I Shall Be Released.” Given his level of productivity, it’s small wonder some of the material wound up in a drawer.
The collaborative aspect is also an overlap with the past. As you can hear on the original Basement Tapes, Dylan and his fellow musicians—who would go on to form The Band—were working not just on songs but on a sound. Weeks went by where all they recorded were cover versions of old folk songs and country hits. They were getting comfortable with each other and with the new material, and they took their time.
No such leisure was available to the musicians who worked on Lost on the River. Working with producer T Bone Burnett, they created what you hear in two weeks, and did so without benefit of ever having previously worked much, if at all, with each other. Given how little time they had to whip this project to the finish line, they accomplished a lot.
On Lost on the River, each musician sings lead on the songs he or she wrote, but some of the songs were recorded more than once because different musicians supplied competing tunes. These alternate versions are the most fascinating songs in the set, because you get to hear how different musicians, faced with the same lyrics, respond in radically different ways: different tempo, rhythm, and of course different melody.
The best that can be said of the final results is that none of it sounds timid or reverential, and no one tries to write or sing a “Dylan song.” Better yet, a fair amount sounds like the participants were having a good time. If none of these songs are likely to knock “Like a Rolling Stone” off your playlist, neither is anything here an embarrassment.
Some of it does sound like people trying too hard, and a lot of it sounds overblown: instead of the intimate sound on Dylan’s Basement Tapes, we get boomy, wall-of-sound production on most of the songs that is the very opposite of intimacy. Worse, too many of the songs start small, and then the sound keeps getting bigger and bigger—nearly everyone involved plays on most cuts—while you sit there thinking, No, keep it small, you had it right there at the beginning. Alas.
The best songs take a mostly acoustic approach, and of those the best by far (“Hidee Hidee Ho #11” and “Lost on the River #20”) were written and sung by Rhiannon Giddens, the insanely talented singer and multi-instrumentalist who plays with the black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Chocolate Drops perform a lot of old-time fiddle tunes (but do yourself a favor and check out their cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’Em Up Style”), so Giddens was probably the one musician on this recording whose grounding in folk traditions and styles was the most similar to Dylan’s. Certainly her songs, like so many of his, sound like old songs, like something you heard your grandmother sing, assuming your grandmother was a monster musician and pretty hip in the bargain.
So how about those lyrics? A lot of them sound like the inspired nonsense that you find on the original Basement Tapes. Here’s some of “Card Shark”:
Now I sat me down to have some fun I jumped in the tank for a spell I boogalooed in the bunkhouse and saw some bandits on the run I went down to get water from the well
Card shark (yes, m’am) Get ’m in the nose That ol’ card shark
And this from “Florida Key”:
Collins Avenue, Fifth Street and Main I walk up and down but it’s all in vain My only darling is gone Took everything and put it out on the lawn And Jim came and got it and he gave it to John It’s getting harder and harder to be me I must find that Florida Key
You wouldn’t say that only Dylan could write something like that, but you can say that he would write such a lyric. And who else would let them gather dust in some drawer for nearly 50 years?
This is not a Dylan album, and it’s not a great album. But it’s never less than interesting, and it does contain a handful of great songs. These days that’s a lot.