For nearly as long as there have been Bob Dylan songs, there have been Bob Dylan covers. The first notable example came in 1963, when folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary took to the top of the pops with their harmonized rendition of Blowin in the Wind. Then came The Byrds electric Mr. Tambourine Man, another number-one hit, which replaced Dylans simple strumming with jangling 12-string riffs. Since then, so many artists have covered Dylan songs that the act itself has become a serious undertaking and art form.
The Amnesty International-benefiting Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (of no relation to Bruce Springsteens similarly titled 1988 live EP, also released in conjunction with Amnesty) comes on the heels of Dylan tribute comps like The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration and the Im Not There OST, but this ones far and away more comprehensive than both of those combined. The cause? Its mammoth size: four CDS, 75 songs (one per artist), five hours. The effect? It covers the entirety of Dylans half-century-plus career fairly evenly. And with its all-star lineup – featuring everyone from baby-boomers Patti Smith and Jackson Browne to twenty-somethings Adele and Ke$ha – its a project in which few people wont find something appealing.
That said, its no surprise that there are a few real gems here. First and foremost might be Mark Knopflers hushed Restless Farewell, which expands Dylans 1964 original via lush arrangements while Knopfler delivers the melody with the sincerity it deserves. My Morning Jackets bare Youre a Big Girl Now finds a softly soaring Jim James vocal bringing an intimacy that even Dylan didnt quite muster when he released the song on 1975s Blood on the Tracks. On her Property of Jesus, lifelong Roman Catholic Sinéad OConnor hands one of Dylans few Christian-period treats a lively, gorgeous fleshing out. And while, in theory, Miley Cyruss Youre Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go should have flopped, its tenderly finger-picked guitar and on-the-screws singing make the track surprisingly cozy. (Sign of the apocalypse?) These tracks bring to mind the best Dylan covers ever– Jimi Hendrixs All Along the Watchtower, The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man, and Thems Its All Over Now, Baby Blue– because the classics all sound like natural extensions of their progenitors, as does each of the other aforementioned renderings. (Also worthy of shout-outs: Tom Morellos Blind Willie McTell, Bettye LaVettes Most of the Time, and Lucinda Williamss Tryin to Get to Heaven.)
Still, plenty of versions here simply dont quite get the job done. Rise Against, as is their nature, crank it up to 11 on their Ballad of Hollis Brown, and while the song’s lyrics demand contempt via vocals, frontman Tim McIlrath overcooks it. (However, Bad Religion goes for a similar balls-to-the-wall approach on their Its All Over Now, Baby Blue, and it goes over markedly better for them.) Cage the Elephant and Jacks Mannequin get a little too cutesy on The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Mr. Tambourine Man, respectively, not allowing the words sufficient breathing room. Similarly, Sussan Deyhims All I Really Want to Do somehow evokes Laurie Anderson rather than Dylan, as its five minutes focus on out-there sonic groundwork instead of the playful delivery of the original song. At the end of the day, though, these versions arent disappointing because they tweak things too much – Dylan himself tends to not play his songs the same way twice – but because they lack the indescribable yet absolutely there particulars the best Dylan songs all have.
At the end of it all is, fittingly enough, Dylans own Chimes of Freedom, one of his earliest surreal epics, which functions as the mystifying end-credits to these oft-cinematic songs. But as plenty of these versions lack firepower, the success of the album is ultimately dependent on the listeners familiarity with the original songs. For Dylan diehards, none of these will touch the originals – its as simple as that. But new fans, or fans of any of the artists here, could be hipped to Dylans seemingly never-ending wellspring of timeless songs through this tribute. And on those grounds, Chimes could wind up being a satisfying listen for anyone who comes across it.
Essential Tracks: Mark Knopflers Restless Farewell, Sinéad OConnors Property of Jesus, and My Morning Jackets Youre a Big Girl Now