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The soundtrack to Bob Dylan’s surreal webcast positively glows without its accompanying visuals

"Shadow Kingdom"

Release date: 02 June 2023
Bob Dylan - Shadow Kingdom cover
02 June 2023, 09:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

First broadcast in July 2021, Shadow Kingdom Bob Dylan's interpretation of a Covid era webstream performance - purported to be broadcast live from an imaginary establishment called the Bon Bon Club in Marseille, France.

In fact, the smoke-infested black & white set-up (imagine the kind of 1950s jazz club where smoking was not so much cool as compulsory, and where patrons are far too busy scheming with one another or contemplating the futility of existence to pay that much attention to the evening’s entertainment, as seen through the reality-distorting lens of David Lynch) was constructed on a far less exotic location, a Santa Monica soundstage.

The sepia-tinged, subtly surreal visuals dreamed up by director Alma Har’el were immeasurably more compelling than the standard issue Covid era webstream recipe of a band or an artist doing what they always do, albeit in an empty room. Impressively, it turns out that live performances at the core of the Shadow Kingdom film sound even more potent when detached from their elaborate staging.

Featuring a small percussion-free combo (with younger musicians such as Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek in place of Dylan’s trusty touring band), these performances – liberally sprinkled with accordion – render 13 vintage Dylan tunes in the style of 2020’s triumphant Rough and Rowdy Ways: contemplative, often gentle of touch, but not afraid to boogie, shimmy and shout with an elegant timelessness when a more raucous tone is called for.

Comprising mainly of deep cuts drawn from Dylan's first decade as a recording artist, the results are often revelatory. “Queen Jane Approximately” won’t risk getting mixed up with the less accomplished outpourings of Dylan’s feverish mid-60s creativity again after its Shadow Kingdom rendition as a delicate lament of boundless longing. A skeletal stop-start arrangement of “Tombstone Blues” (also from 1965’s masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited) is slowed down to the point where it almost stands still, turning the original's jittery blues into an enigmatically hypnotic ballad. From 1969’s country excursion Nashville Skyline, “To Be Alone With You” oozes playful charm, while “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” sheds its honky-tonkin’ origins to gallop and buck astride a riff that’s on more than friendly terms with Roy Head’s 1965 hit “Treat Her Right”.

As well as demonstrating the enduring pull and seemingly boundless malleability of Dylan's songs, Shadow Kingdom is primarily a celebration of Dylan's renewed ability to navigate a melody after years when his vinegar-gurgling, gravelly rasp made Tom Waits resemble an angelic choirboy. Throughout Shadow Kingdom, Dylan is found virtually savouring the sweet taste of his lyrics, applying care, precision and masterful phrasing that renders the results really quite beautiful. Never more so than on a mesmerising glide through "What Was It You Wanted" (from 1989's Oh Mercy, which seems recent in this company, until you realise it emerged 27 years into Dylan's 60 year recording career) and an impossibly tender, hymn-like rendition of "Forever Young".

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