The pleasure of hearing Stephen Malkmus tackle Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited classic, “Ballad of a Thin Man,” is both obvious and subtle. On the surface, this cut from the star-studded I’m Not There soundtrack features the frontman of the 90’s best American rock group (yeah, I said it) tackling one of Dylan’s most revered and surreally phrased masterpieces. You knew the Million Dollar Bashers [more:](including Wilco’s Nels Cline, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Lee Renaldo, and, uh, Medeski from Martin, Medeski, & Wood, among others) were going to be the best bar band ever, so most of this cover’s quality falls directly on Malkmus’ shrugged shoulders. He delivers a performance that immediately beats Chan Marshall’s lame Dylan impression as well as Karen O’s disconnected phone-in. Despite a few differences in vocal delivery, this is exactly what’s advertised; a completely faithful rendering with Malkmus leading the charge.
The more interesting sub plot is what that forced restraint says about Malkmus at this point in his career (at least for an avowed Pavement nut, such as myself). [more:]While I usually prize covers that significantly warp their source material, that sort of re-invention isn’t particularly useful as a soundtrack, even for a bio-pic as unconventional as I’m Not There. So here we get a picture of Malkmus as a consumate professional. Though Pavement covered alot of canonical artists in their day (Beatles, Pixies, the Fall, Joy Division, and the Velvet Underground spring to mind) their versions were almost always flip and sloppy, inventing entirely new bridges or completely transfiguring lyrics at will. In this cover, Malkmus treats every odd image as gospel, adding only his own inflection (a bit less snarling than Dylan’s). The reverance is telling, both for exposing the influence Dylan’s meaningful sounding non-sequiturs obviously had on Malkmus’s songwriting and for a brief portrait of an artist who’s now more interested in executing a song correctly than scoring some smart-ass points off of it.