On 31 March 2017, Bob Dylan, recent (and controversial) Nobel literature laureate, released – on the eve of the next leg of the 75-year-old’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ – his 38th studio album, a 3-CD offering entitled ‘Triplicate’ and containing 30 songs. He had won the Nobel for 2016 for what the Swedish academy called his ‘new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. However, while the content of the album might pass as being part of that ‘great American song tradition’ – material from the 1930s and 40s like ‘Imagination’ as sung by Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra’s ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, or the Hoagy Carmichael composition ‘Stardust’ – not a single one of those 30 songs was written by the now-officially-a-poet Bob Dylan. Three of the songs – ‘I Could Have Told You’, ‘That Old Feeling’ and ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’- are not completely new to Dylan fans, having featured earlier in his stage set.
‘Triplicate’ is Dylan’s 7th studio album to consist entirely of cover versions (there are another three with a majority of covers), and is the third in a triptych of recordings of numbers from the Great American Songbook, the previous two being the Sinatra tribute ‘Shadows in the Night’ (2015) and its follow-up ‘Fallen Angels’ (2016). On ‘Triplicate’ – as on ‘Fallen Angels’ – all of the songs but one were recorded at some point by Sinatra (on ‘Shadows in the Night’ they all were).
Dylan has produced diptychs or triptychs of generically similar material before – the three religious albums from the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Slow Train Coming’, ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’, and the early-90s acoustic folk/blues pair ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘World Gone Wrong’. Now we have a ‘Triplicate’ of 30 songs, within a triad amounting to 50 – and all 50 are cover versions.
The CD box has no author credits for the songs. It is true that full credits can be found on the brand-new Wikipedia entry for the album, but this remains a curious omission for an album claimed to arise from Dylan’s admiration for his songwriting precursors (‘Shadows in the Night’ did include credits, ‘Fallen Angels’ did not). It does have a rather fulsome set of sleevenotes, penned by New Orleans-based novelist Tom Piazza and claiming the album as a piece of ‘extraordinary vocal musicianship’, ‘a recording for the ages, timeless and profound’. While sleevenotes have proliferated on Dylan’s Bootleg Series recordings, this is the first Dylan studio album to include such notes since the self-penned ones to ‘World Gone Wrong’ in 1993.
Bob Dylan has on his recent tours (the upcoming tour is unlikely to be different) placed this vintage cover material at the heart of his stage act. What started off with novelty value now risks becoming the norm: the future will decide whether this album and its two predecessors are or are not a significant addition to Bob Dylan’s career achievement. It is strange – though strangeness has long accompanied the twists and turns of Dylan’s career – that the artist’s Nobel consecration has not impelled him to compose new originals that might vie with the songs that won him the prize. Still, as Dylan wrote in 1968 of his outlaw character John Wesley Harding, ‘there was no man around who could track or chain him down’ …