Ask any well-versed Bob Dylan admirer about why they think his legacy and his work have continued to be influential so long after their conception in 1962, and you may get a varied array of responses. Many may argue that it’s Dylan’s incredibly rough and gravelly voice, or his poetic songwriting. However, I personally believe that it’s his ability to constantly switch from performing and writing in one musical genre to another without any real explanation or context.
Dylan has danced around musical genres, as seen in his infamous transition of folk to rock, and his incorporation of country and gospel, blues, rockabilly, jazz, and most recently, his drawing from the the Great American Songbook. This is where Dylan’s most recent album, 2017’s Triplicate, fits in the extensive tapestry of art that is Dylan’s career. Examining both the context and content of this three-disc album will allow one to better understand Dylan’s knowledge of American classics, and into possible directions for his musical future.
Triplicate, Dylan’s thirty-eighth studio album, was released on March 31, 2017 in the form of a three-disc album with ten songs per disc. This is his third cover album in a row to feature only songs from the Great American Songbook, an unofficial collection of early twentieth-century popular classics that had already been covered by well-known singers. Singers including Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, who Dylan described as “the mountain he had to climb,” all have made prior renditions of the Great American Songbook . Triplicate produced three singles: “I Could Have Told You,” on January 30; “My One and Only Love,” on February 17; and “Stardust,” on March 10. When the album was officially released in March, Dylan released a ten-song sampler showing off the album’s highlights on YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud.
So, is Triplicate even good? It mostly depends on the perspective from which you’re looking at this work. From a non-Dylan fan, it can sound atrocious, with Dylan’s unfamiliar and raspy version being an obvious downgrade compared to the silky covers of either Frank Sinatra or Chet Baker. However, when you judge only Dylan’s voice from an extrinsic point of view using previous albums like his 2012 album Tempest, his voice sounds much more coherent and professional in Triplicate, probably due to the very different themes these songs convey. It takes guts to sing songs that many icons have already sung before, especially with a voice that David Bowie once described as “sand and glue.” It was a pleasant experience to listen to “I Could Have Told You” for the first time without Dylan’s typical nasally voice that surely would have ruined the spirit and essence of the tune.
Despite the dispute on whether Dylan’s voice helps add to or detract from the overall musical experience, the listener can definitely hear Dylan’s enthusiasm and emotion in lamentative songs such as “When the World Was Young,” or songs yearning for a once-loved one in “Once Upon a Time.” Both songs deal with personal sadness and depression, which Dylan rarely touches upon. However good Dylan’s performance was on the album, it’s truly Dylan’s band that makes the album. The band helps Dylan propel himself into mimicking and interpreting these old classics with such clarity, subtlety, and jazz-inspired instrumentation and technique that instantly evoke nostalgia for an earlier and whimsical time.
When viewing Triplicate from a glance, it becomes confusing as to who exactly the album was made for. It seems unlikely that it would be for fans of other renditions of the Great American Songbook, as they would find Dylan’s voice noticeably more harsh than in any other rendition. It also seems unlikely that it was made for Dylan fans, as the album is made up entirely of cover songs from a genre that has only been recently embraced by Dylan. Overall, Dylan characterizes the album as being for “the man on the street, the common man, the everyday person.” Even though Triplicate blew my low expectations out of the water, I personally hope that it is the end of the Great American Songbook trilogy, and that Dylan returns to creating original content.