Bob Dylan releases 38th studio album

Bob Dylan released "Triplicate" on March 31, 2017. 

As a musician, Bob Dylan will never be known for his sonic accuracy. Particularly in the first half of his career, he can often be heard singing out of tune in many of his songs. His voice carries a signature scratchy, talking-like quality that makes it instantly recognizable, though this abrupt delivery certainly doesn’t denote pleasantness. However, Dylan’s most recent release “Triplicate” finds him paying special attention to his singing.

Traditionally, Dylan often revises verses while he sings them, sometimes laughing midline at the cleverness — or pure absurdity — of a phrase. He speeds up the pace of songs unintentionally as the energy builds up. He wails on his harmonica with a reckless indifference. Bob Dylan doesn’t play his harmonica like it’s a harmonica, he plays it like it’s a trumpet.

Instead, Dylan is known for his lyrical accuracy and his ability to command a live performance. His extreme gift as an artist lies in his lyrics. Dylan is able to approach subjects both sincerely and flippantly.

One of many examples is “Bob Dylan’s Blues” off the quintessential 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” While professing his love for Susan Rotolo — the girlfriend seen cradling his arm on the album cover — he also addresses the various women that hit on him for his newfound fame. After he sings the line “Go away from my door and window too,” he starts a harmonica solo, but quickly throws in the words, “Right now.” This ability to throw in a few extra words at the end of a verse often creates the most enjoyable Bob Dylan moments.

Dylan’s lyrics are often bathed in metaphors. He jumps from topic to topic without care. One minute he may be scathingly critiquing the government, and another he may be joking about how handsome he is. His ability to improvise — to tack on a thought or a phrase as a sort of rushed, post-it note conclusion — truly leaves him as one of the greats.  

This is what makes Dylan’s thirty-eighth studio album “Triplicate,” so interesting. Like his past two studio albums the three-disc, thirty-song album features covers of classic American songs. Besides the song “Braggin,’” every song was once recorded by Frank Sinatra.

Whereas Dylan was praised in his early career for his unorthodox style and fantastic one-part songs, with “Triplicate,” we find him adhering to the structural stature of the traditional crooner jazz standards.

These are nonetheless bold reimaginings of standards. The ballads and pop hits take on a melancholic tone as Dylan sings them. Yet for a singer who never seems to concern himself with sounding the way others want him to, Dylan’s voice sounds great. He adopts the inherent swooning quality of Sinatra effortlessly.

What’s more impressive is that he’s able to re-create big band classics with only a five-piece band. His backing band adds a tint of the folk/country classics Dylan experimented with in his heyday. The sound of the pedal steel in particular adds to this atmosphere, but Dylan and his band have never sounded so natural together.

In a 2006 Rolling Stones interview, Dylan said, “This is the best band I've ever been in, I've ever had, man for man. When you play with guys a hundred times a year, you know what you can and can't do, what they're good at, whether you want 'em there.”

The result is the interpretation of the six expert musicians paying homage to the forgotten arrangers of our jazz standard era. The likes of Billy May, Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins are immortalized in thematic renditions.

Even though Dylan controversially won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year for the language-expanding nature of his songwriting, he’s still surprisingly humble when discussing Sinatra.

In a recent AARP interview, Dylan said, “Frank sang to you, not at you, like so many pop singers today. Even singers of standards. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I’ve always wanted to sing to somebody.”

This album is an attempt to honor one of the American greats, not a cheap ploy of emulation. It’s a respectful love letter from one trailblazer to another.

Contact Drew Cowen at cowends@dukes.jmu.edu