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March 31, 2017

TEST SPIN: Bob Dylan — Triplicate

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On March 18th, the American music canon lost one of its greatest contributors.  Chuck Berry defined Rock n’ Roll and he paved the way for legendary groups and artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and John Lennon.  The music world lost a heart of style, personality and talent with the end of Berry’s prolific life — he died at the age of 90 after his last public performance just 9 years prior.  Since his passing, the music world, as well as mainstream news platforms, have honored Berry’s legacy with equal fervor.  Time Magazine wrote, “ While Elvis Presley gave rock its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the template for a new sound and way of life.”  Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”  John Lennon said, “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”  Berry duck walked into history and will stay there until the music stops.  Bob Dylan, who called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll,” carries on the late legend’s melody in his new album Triplicate. Dylan’s latest release offers a glimpse of musical history at the end of the Berry-era and invites his colleagues to shape a new age.

The three-disk Triplicate contains 30 covers from the Great American Songbook.  Dylan takes listeners back to the pre-rock, pre-Berry era of romantic harmonies and jazz inspired chords.  He peels away our musical progress and, in doing so, makes a point about the way we’ve developed, not just in rock n’ roll but into a realm of commoditized music production.  Dylan’s album shows how something old and outdated can be made new again, without techno-intervention and auto-tuned invasion.  He gives us a style that’s now grown rare — fingertip to guitar string, weathered vocal instrument and so, so much love.  He reinvigorates classics — that precede even the seemingly ageless Bob Dylan — and gives listeners “That Old Feeling.”  He brings passion back without the moves like Jagger, without the carefully cultivated brand and without an effusive scream or even an artistic falsetto.  Dylan plays canonical pieces unambitiously.  He cares for the words and weight and candor and emotion rather than a song’s historical resonance, popularized jazz melody or recognizable sound bite.  In Triplicate, Dylan revitalizes thirty songs and challenges listeners not to remember their past but to begin again with another “Once Upon a Time.”

Dylan’s album title directly invites listeners to hear a mere imitation of old favorites or to reimagine the course of musical development.  By definition, “triplicate” refers to one of three identical items — copies.  Dylan’s Triplicate tests this description in every sense.  He splits the album into three equal parts of ten tracks — “Til the Sun Goes Down,” “Devil Dolls,” and “Comin’ Home Late.”  And each section’s ten songs play out with popular jazz melodies, quaint lyrics and, of course, Dylan’s distinctive voice.  To an inattentive listener, each brief track flows into the next like one giant mega-cover.  But “The Voice of a Generation” didn’t compile his Triplicate to show the sameness in the American music canon.  His model unfolds.  It opens — threefold — and then three more and three more, in a different way for each listener.  It brings audiences back to nearly century old music and redirects music culture toward something vital and preservative.  Dylan’s Triplicate fights against the repetitious uniformity imposed on modern musicians.  Dylan’s return to the past directly opposes the follow-the-leader like trend in popular culture — as when the Jonas Brothers led to One Direction and Justin Bieber inspired Shawn Mendes — in a way that causes monotony rather than progress.  Triplicate offers a different kind of imitation that allows for forward motion and contemporary reinvention.

Triplicate’s release, just two weeks after Berry’s passing, reassures American music lover’s that the rock world will keep rolling. He takes listeners back in time to redirect a musical course. Dylan takes up Berry’s reigns.  He leads us confidently into a time before Berry — the age of Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker — and his listeners look with him into the future.  Like the opening beats of Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come,” Dylan, note by note, opens up a new view of what’s coming forward. The music drips with nostalgia; and yet Dylan’s voice works like water buckets under a running spigot — collecting every wistful tear to rehydrate and renew.  He cloaks his yearning for “My One and Only Love,” “Stardust” and “These Foolish Things” with a confidence in the future — something refreshingly uncharacteristic of a 75-year-old performer.  Dylan’s “When the World Was Young” holds all sentimentality for the past without the longing to return there.  His aged voice sounds surprisingly vital when paired with even older jazz melodies.

Bob Dylan symbolizes American music culture, and, in Triplicate, he exists within and beyond the Great American Songbook.  Despite his historical significance, Dylan figures himself as a mechanism for forward motion.  Triplicate offers one step back to the past for the many notes coming forth.  On March 29th, after having missed the Nobel ceremony in December of last year, Dylan agreed to accept his Nobel literature prize at a small, private gathering in Stockholm later this week.  The Academy’s decision to recognize Dylan—unlike the singer’s small, rescheduled ceremony—holds universal significance.  Dylan, the first songwriter to receive the prestigious award, claims he never thought about his songs as literature. While he calls Berry a rock n’ roll Shakespeare, he sees himself as a lyricist.  With Triplicate, as with Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, Time out of Mind and many more, Dylan proves and re-proves how good music comments on everyday life and the arc of human development.  He strings together similar songs, like the moments of every passing year, and calls on his listeners to draw new passion from a longing for the lost.

 

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jmc628@cornell.edu