Bob Dylan – Shadow Kingdom

A riveting journey to the Bard's past...

Bob Dylan was confounded and confused, delayed and derailed. Well, wouldn’t you be? When the Never Ending tour was launched in 1988 it was designed to withstand any ordinary obstacle, but Rock’s Poet Laureate didn’t quite foresee the coming of an international pandemic. A modern Rimbaud, maybe, but Nostradamus, he ain’t.

With his band off the road and time to kill, Dylan hatched a plan in 2021. Working with Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har’el, he brought his regular band together on a soundstage in Santa Monica, California, opting to re-work vintage songs from his esteemed catalogue. Dubbed Shadow Kingdom – The Early Songs Of Bob Dylan the 50 minute film was a roaring success on its 2021 release, thanks in part to its focus – on the Bard’s heralded mid 60s evolution – and the brisk, infectious performances therein.

But the pandemic is over, and Dylan is back on the road. Given the shift in context, what hold does Shadow Kingdom have over fans? Now presented in full as an audio document, it emerges as a fascinating take on Bob Dylan’s history, picking apart old truths and laying out something that feels a little more at ease with who he has become. The oft-quoted phrase Thin Wild Mercury Sound was always a misnomer – here, he reaches into the fabric of the American songbook, tethering his often abstract work to broader currents and deeper tributaries.

Opening with a warm, absorbing ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ there’s a sense of wry humour in Dylan’s visitation of the past. While the original of ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’ has a choppy, skippy feel, here it’s ruminative, with an aspect of contemplation. ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ emerges as something more elegiac, as if imagining the lyric pages yellowed by time.

Yet it’s not all contemplation. Bob Dylan’s touring ensemble are forged by the fires of countless months on the road, so cute rocker ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ has a lavicious physicality, and an elastic ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ offers an intriguing revisitation to Highway 61.

The wheezing accordions of ‘Tombstone Blues’ are accompanied by splashes of guitar, the band arranged as though Dylan were approaching one of his painting. The tempo is upped on ‘To Be Alone With You’ as the ‘Nashville Skyline’ highlight is injected with a touch of rockabilly.

Expertly paced, the performance flows to a lugubrious strut on ‘What Was It You Wanted’ – all atmosphere and emotion; cinematic in a kind of film noir way. The oft-covered ‘Forever Young’ is given a fresh reading, and while even Dylan can’t quite reinvent the track there’s something thrilling about hearing him reclaim it. ‘Blonde On Blonde’ 12 bar ‘Pledging My Time’ emerges as a sludgy slow blues, the space between each note stretched out to the length of the trans-continental railroad; there’s a Celtic feel to ‘The Wicked Messager’ however, with the performance containing something uniquely 19th century in its DNA, like a sepia photography.

The jaunty and carefree ‘Watching The River Flow’ allows Dylan to emerge as a regular Huckleberry Finn, before the bold reinvention that accompanies  ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. A farewell to an age? Or a welcome to another?

‘Shadow Kingdom’ closes with ‘Sierra’s Theme’, a brooding instrument that shows the full scope of each musician. It recalls his score for ‘Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid’, while also tapping into the more modern chapters of his work.

Shorn of its visuals, ‘Shadow Kingdom’ remains a fascinating listen. During his most recent concerts, for example, Dylan rarely if ever dipped into these waters, preferring the clear, unmuddied currents of the present. Facing down his past, he comes close to eclipsing it, and offers magnificent proof of his continued vitality as a performing artist.


Words: Robin Murray

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