Triplicate Bob Dylan Sony “I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it,” Bob Dylan says in his delicious 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, “and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.” He is referring to the period, close to 50 years ago now, when he was desperately trying to shed off the adulators who had in the 1960s annoyingly anointed him as the spokesman for their generation. It didn’t quite work back then, but his recent excursions into the Great American Songbook — Shadows in the Night in 2015 and last year’s Fallen Angels — spurred suspicions that he might be trying to repeat the feat he attempted at the cusp of the 70s with Self Portrait and Dylan. Triplicate effectively rubbishes that thesis.
The first triple album, other than Australian compilation Masterpieces, in a recording career that stretches back to 1962 is a meticulously curated collection of standards — some of them obscure, others all too familiar, including Stormy Weather, As Time Goes By and Stardust — that are treated to the best vocals Dylan could conceivably conjure up in the September of his years (yup, that one’s on there, too). Every syllable receives the attention it deserves.
Dylan is seemingly out to prove that the initial part of his singer-songwriter appellation isn’t a crude joke. Over the decades his voice has frequently attracted opprobrium, often unfairly. On masterpieces from the mid-60s and mid-70s, his vocals are usually appropriate, occasionally exquisite and invariably inimitable. By the turn of the 90s, though, he had acquired a croak that restricted his range, and he occasionally faltered in coping with the consequences. His subsequent excursions nonetheless attracted adulation that sometimes verged on overkill, based on what he represented rather than his enduring skills as a revelator.
At this stage of his career, it might have been potentially far more fruitful for Dylan to attempt the compositions of his contemporaries, from Lennon-McCartney to Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, than the often mundane — although sometimes delightful — lyrics of his predecessors. The effort that has gone into Triplicate ought not to be derided, but that does not mean it won’t ultimately stand as a testament to Dylan’s delightful perversity — the unfathomable mindset that led him initially to ignore last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, and then to graciously accept it on April 1.
Dylan’s unpredictability is a part of his charm, and who knows what he will come up with next? There’s no guarantee that Triplicate — divided into three 32-minute segments, evidently because that is the ideal duration for a vinyl LP — will be the last of his nods to a past he has only lately felt inclined to inhabit. The Best is Yet to Come? I wouldn’t bet on it. But the thing is, with Dylan the hope never dies.