I am not a Dylanologist nor do I play one on this blog, though I do consider myself a Bob Dylan fan. In 1979, at the age of 14, I purchased my first Bob Dylan album, Slow Train Coming, and despite disliking the LP’s religiosity, continued on the journey, hopping aboard the box cars known as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II albums and riding the rails to Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, though not in that order. The red and blue Rolling Stone Record Guides, as always in those years, were crucial engineers in my journey.
In the mid-’80s, when I was one of several rotating deejays on the folk show that aired on Penn State’s student-run radio station every Saturday and Sunday morning, his early works were staples of my shifts. I also came to know a few of his ‘70s-era albums simply by playing their tracks on the air, as odd as that may sound. (A skip in the live Hard Rain album haunts me still.)
Anyway, as the times of hand have rotated around my life’s clock, a smattering of his latter-day works also entered my collection, including the 3-CD Biograph overview, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and the Greatest Hits Vol. III set, as “Dignity” was and is a latter-day favorite of mine, plus his recent Rough and Rowdy Ways LP, which to my ears is one of the year’s best. (It’s too soon for me to contemplate my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors, but I’m sure it will be in the running.) More often than not, however, when I’m in a Dylan mood, I turn to those ‘60s sides – Freewheelin’ and Bringing It All Back Home, especially – or The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall) and Vol. 9 (The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964).
I’m also a fan of cover versions – not just of Dylan songs, but of the genre itself (if it can be considered a genre). At their best, covers shed insight into both the singer and the song. The Sid & Susie Under the Covers albums still receive play in my day-to-day life, as does Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. (What can I say? I’m weird that way.) And First Aid Kit’s renditions of a few Dylan tunes on Election Night 2016 said much about them, while simultaneously demonstrating the utter timelessness of the songs themselves.
Until recently, however, I wasn’t familiar with the Nashville-based, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. She came to my attention by way of Twitter, believe it or not, as folks I follow also follow her (or vice versa); as a result, her tweets occasionally popped up in my feed. One day, and I don’t remember exactly when, her cover of Dylan’s recent “I Contain Multitudes” appeared.
Her vocals are smoother than Dylan’s gruff intonations, obviously, and the gravitas that drips from his every syllable is missing from hers – but it’s replaced by an intangible that’s difficult to articulate, yet equally hypnotic. It’s akin to eyeing a landscape from a glider rather than a plane, I suppose. The former, if I’ve done my research right, skirts the clouds; the latter, on the other hand, flies above them. Either/or, it’s quite cool. I ordered the LP the same day from her BandCamp page, expecting the delivery to be near the release date listed there – August 14th. Then, earlier this month, she released a rendition of “Queen Jane Approximately” that features a Byrdsian texture. Again, quite cool.
The LP arrived on Monday with a note thanking me for purchasing the album, but – let’s be real – the nice note would mean little if the album itself didn’t live up to those first two teaser tracks. No worries, however. It does. Emma’s vocals capture the emotional raison d’être of the songs, with her inflections adding depth and all the other things that turn a cover song into a reflection of the performer’s own soul.
To my ears, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the standout of the eight songs. Emma captures the nuances of the lyrics, seemingly living them while singing them. The other tracks, as evidenced by the above two videos, also skirt the clouds, shedding a welcome perspective. Another immediate favorite is “The Man in Me” from New Morning, a Dylan album I’m not super familiar with. (That’s another notch in the album’s favor, actually: These aren’t the usual Dylan songs that get covered.)
My main criticism of many albums in the CD era and, now, digital age is length. Too often, artists release hour-plus affairs that would be stronger if they’d trimmed it to 40-or-so minutes and allocated the other tunes to b-sides (or whatever the digital version of those are). The reverse is true here, however, as the listener is left wanting more. I highly recommend Blonde on the Tracks, and look forward to exploring the rest of Emma Swift’s oeuvre.
For those curious, here’s the song list with their album home in italics:
Queen Jane Approximately – Highway 61 Revisited
I Contain Multitudes – Rough and Rowdy Ways
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) – Blonde on Blonde
Simple Twist of Fate – Blood on the Tracks
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – Blonde on Blonde
The Man in Me – New Morning
Going Going Gone – Planet Waves
You’re a Big Girl Now – Blood on the Tracks