This double album — featuring twenty-eight musicians impersonating the artist who once said, “God, I’d hate to be me” — would veer precariously close to masochism if it wasn’t busy immersing itself in the sincerest form of flattery. Whereas I’m Not There the film (directed and written by Todd Haynes) shattered Bob Dylan into six composites in an effort to summarize (or obfuscate, depending on how you feel about Richard Gere breathing the air around Tom Paine) the obstinately mercurial songwriter, its soundtrack ventures even further: thirty-three covers culled from Dylan’s nearly fifty years of recording.
Producers Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar wisely sidestepped landmine covers of such indelible, synapse-etched songs as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” only to lose a leg on the first track, a hoarse and plasticine cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Eddie Vedder and the Million Dollar Bashers (Tom Verlaine, Lee Renaldo, and Nels Cline, among others) ably reproduce Dylan and the Band’s Before the Flood version of Jimi Hendrix’s epochal, apocalyptic simulacra, and they fail just as ably in bringing anything new or relevant to the song the fourth time around. It’s a problem that metastasizes throughout the album’s membranous layers, rendering mannered tracks like Stephen Malkmus and the Bashers’ “Ballad of a Thin Man” and Mason Jennings’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” as pale, anemic echoes of the originals.
Dylan’s versions of these songs are part of the permanent, integral foundation to the canon that Malkmus, Vedder, Mason, et cetera now stand upon, and note-for-note reproductions strip them of the freewheeling vitality, personality, and electricity that he infused them with. The covers sound pointless and irrelevant next to the potency and necessity of Dylan’s original letters from Desolation Row.
There is nothing surprising here, and there is next to nothing in terms of definitive covers along the “Watchtower” strain. It should be noted, though, that it’s the artists standing next to nothing who save the album, and some of Dylan’s more obscure cuts, from pop oblivion. Tom Verlaine, full of blasted, cobwebbed age and cracked, circuitous menace, turns in his best performance since 1981’s Dreamland with a gritty and lovesick take on “Cold Irons Bound” from Time Out of Mind (1997), and Malkmus absolves himself with the shimmering, jingle-jangle beauty of the unreleased fragment “Can’t Leave Her Behind.”
Elsewhere, Richie Havens’s acoustic howl rhythmically tears “Tombstone Blues” from Mike Bloomfield’s electric havens and drives it all the way to the New Orleans endpoint of Highway 61, and John Doe saves “Pressing On” from the brimstone haze of Bob’s busy being born-again phase. With a frayed and edgy vocal that leaps over the original’s dogmatic fervor and dovetails into weary hope, it’s a wrenching, almost violently electric performance, and it’s one of the few times in which a Dylan cover doesn’t just equal its predecessor, but overwhelms it.
That song illuminates one of the more shadow-flit corners of Dylan’s discography, and, if the rest of the album had mined the same vein, we’d have something that rivals John Wesley Harding in its mystery and power. As it stands, the soundtrack is simply better than Self Portrait, and just as maddening.