Bob Dylan Illuminates New Corners of His Music on 'Shadow Kingdom'
Published Jun 01, 2023When Bob Dylan's black-and-white film Shadow Kingdom emerged in 2021, depicting Dylan and a band performing select songs from his back catalogue (mostly stemming from the 1960s) in a smoky and intimate venue, it was both compelling and puzzling.
Directed by Alma Har'el and framed as a live, pay-per-view concert stream, Shadow Kingdom was actually a performance of a studio recording, with musicians even finger syncing and playing the roles of the actual personnel who laid the original music down with Dylan. Shot beautifully and starkly, it presented a strange, present/past temporality where some of the cast was wearing N95 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others openly smoked cigarettes and created a thick fog.
In that deadly serious air, there was a lot of hard staring through the camera, daring us to flinch at Dylan's songs, which he'd adapted with new arrangements and lyrical tweaks and overhauls. But if you didn't watch the film over and over again in the week or so that a purchase enabled you to spend with it at the time (it's due to be widely available as a rental or download to complement this album's release), the visual spectacle and shock of it all almost overwhelmed the songs.
As a standalone soundtrack removed from the film, Shadow Kingdom becomes less menacing and more playfully charming. The instrumentation here includes Dylan on vocals and harmonica, and a strikingly homespun array of gear like accordions, acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolins and upright and electric bass. In fact, on record the vibe here is decidedly more in line with Dylan's legendary low-key and lo-fi sessions with the Band, which were released as The Basement Tapes.
On The Basement Tapes, Dylan explored music from the American songbook that he deemed eternally meaningful, but also ripe to inspire his own craft and wilder leanings. Nothing was captured pristinely and in fact, its primitive field recording sound was as much an homage to archivists like Harry Smith and Alan Lomax as it was to the songs, artists, and styles they captured, referenced endlessly by Dylan and his colleagues.
The exercise prompted Dylan and the Band to write some wonderfully strange, funny, and emotionally raw stuff that critic Greil Marcus once suggested reflected "the old, weird America." Something about that phrase seems eerily close to a "shadow kingdom," and Dylan seems to have applied a similar methodology of celebration and adaptation to his own works.
Unlike some of his recent proper albums, Dylan's voice sits lower and untreated by reverb in the mix, and he sings with true grace, beauty, and grit. On opener, "When I Paint My Masterpiece," (which Dylan wrote and recorded in 1971 but initially loaned to the Band, who released it on Cahoots that same year) he knocks about a range of vocal approaches and phrasing; crooning speak-singing, and really just taking the song out for a leisurely drive as if it's a new car.
In a way, it is a new ride: he alters familiar lyrics like, "Got to hurry on back to my hotel room / Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece" to the less culturally specific, "Got to hurry on back to my hotel room / Wash my clothes, and scrape off all the grease."
In fact, most of the songs here feature some slight or significant difference that perks the ear or itches the head. 1969's "To Be Alone with You" is almost entirely new lyrically, with just a few kernels of its original form in place, and its romanticism replaced by some measure of resigned cynicism. "I know you're a liar, and I am too," Dylan sings, existentially, of duality. "My one desire is to be alone with you."
There are myriad examples of such alterations and updates here, on words that some Dylan fans hold sacred and, unsurprisingly, though his vocal melodies are familiar for each classic song, the musical arrangements are distinctively fresh. But fans also know that Dylan himself views his recordings as moments in time and the songs and his ideas are free to be whatever he and we need them to be.
As an album, Shadow Kingdom is an alternate universe that reflects another side of Bob Dylan's craft and creative muses. It's not a funhouse mirror reflection per se, but it's definitely really fun the more you look at it. (Columbia)