For nearly as long as there have been Bob Dylan songs, there have been Bob Dylan covers. The first notable example came in 1963, when folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary took to the top of the pops with their harmonized rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Then came The Byrds’ electric “Mr. Tambourine Man”, another number-one hit, which replaced Dylan‘s simple strumming with jangling 12-string riffs. Since then, so many artists have covered Dylan songs that the act itself has become a serious undertaking and art form.
The Amnesty International-benefiting Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (of no relation to Bruce Springsteen’s similarly titled 1988 live EP, also released in conjunction with Amnesty) comes on the heels of Dylan tribute comps like The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration and the I’m Not There OST, but this one’s far and away more comprehensive than both of those combined. The cause? Its mammoth size: four CDS, 75 songs (one per artist), five hours. The effect? It covers the entirety of Dylan’s half-century-plus career fairly evenly. And with its all-star lineup – featuring everyone from baby-boomers Patti Smith and Jackson Browne to twenty-somethings Adele and Ke$ha – it’s a project in which few people won’t find something appealing.
That said, it’s no surprise that there are a few real gems here. First and foremost might be Mark Knopfler’s hushed “Restless Farewell”, which expands Dylan‘s 1964 original via lush arrangements while Knopfler delivers the melody with the sincerity it deserves. My Morning Jacket’s bare “You’re a Big Girl Now” finds a softly soaring Jim James vocal bringing an intimacy that even Dylan didn’t quite muster when he released the song on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. On her “Property of Jesus”, lifelong Roman Catholic Sinéad O’Connor hands one of Dylan’s few Christian-period treats a lively, gorgeous fleshing out. And while, in theory, Miley Cyrus’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” should have flopped, its tenderly finger-picked guitar and on-the-screws singing make the track surprisingly cozy. (Sign of the apocalypse?) These tracks bring to mind the best Dylan covers ever– Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and Them’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”– because the classics all sound like natural extensions of their progenitors, as does each of the other aforementioned renderings. (Also worthy of shout-outs: Tom Morello’s “Blind Willie McTell”, Bettye LaVette’s “Most of the Time”, and Lucinda Williams’s “Tryin‘ to Get to Heaven”.)
Still, plenty of versions here simply don‘t quite get the job done. Rise Against, as is their nature, crank it up to 11 on their “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, and while the song’s lyrics demand contempt via vocals, frontman Tim McIlrath overcooks it. (However, Bad Religion goes for a similar balls-to-the-wall approach on their “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, and it goes over markedly better for them.) Cage the Elephant and Jack’s Mannequin get a little too cutesy on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, respectively, not allowing the words sufficient breathing room. Similarly, Sussan Deyhim’s “All I Really Want to Do” somehow evokes Laurie Anderson rather than Dylan, as its five minutes focus on out-there sonic groundwork instead of the playful delivery of the original song. At the end of the day, though, these versions aren’t disappointing because they tweak things too much – Dylan himself tends to not play his songs the same way twice – but because they lack the indescribable yet absolutely there particulars the best Dylan songs all have.
At the end of it all is, fittingly enough, Dylan’s own “Chimes of Freedom”, one of his earliest surreal epics, which functions as the mystifying end-credits to these oft-cinematic songs. But as plenty of these versions lack firepower, the success of the album is ultimately dependent on the listener’s familiarity with the original songs. For Dylan diehards, none of these will touch the originals – it‘s as simple as that. But new fans, or fans of any of the artists here, could be hipped to Dylan’s seemingly never-ending wellspring of timeless songs through this tribute. And on those grounds, Chimes could wind up being a satisfying listen for anyone who comes across it.
Essential Tracks: Mark Knopfler‘s “Restless Farewell”, Sinéad O‘Connor‘s “Property of Jesus”, and My Morning Jacket‘s “You’re a Big Girl Now”