Annotating this friendly takeover by smart young Americana types, Jonathan Lethem argues that the maligned and presumed lost ’80s Dylan was only trying to prove “that big as he was, he wasn’t bigger than rock ‘n’ roll itself.” He hired hit producers; he married his backup singer; he dominated a supergroup that’s worn better than most supergroups. Plus, Lethem insists, he wrote a trove of great songs — 14 of which Columbia covertly compiled on 2013’s Playlist: The Very Best of Bob Dylan ’80s, which even if you think Lethem’s blowing some very fragrant smoke ain’t bad at all.
This tribute album, however, is a significant improvement, partly because the Playlist material has its flat spots, and partly because Dylan sings it — a third of the selections are from his Christian period, and almost all share the phlegmy gravity he favored when feeling holier-than-thou, as if a head cold was proof of enlightenment. Much younger than that fortysomething millionaire, the singers here sound delighted to be singing goddamn Dylan songs, and should be; smart though they are, only a few — in particular Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley III and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn — are much shakes at this songwriting stuff themselves.
Starting with comedian Reggie Watts riffing on the known classic “Brownsville Girl,” there’s more humor here than on all Dylan’s ’80s albums, which between outtakes and the Traveling Wilburys and 1990’s slept-on Under the Red Sky and the soundtrack-only “Night After Night” provide only half the 17 songs anyway. Arguably, there’s also more Dylan, because many frontmen turn imitators for the occasion — note the freewheelin’ nasality of Aaron Freeman’s “Wiggle Wiggle,” the highway-revisiting wail of Langhorne Slim’s “Got My Mind Made Up,” the rounded-off Nashville Skyline intonations of Elvis Perkins’ “Congratulations.” Of the (mere) six songs the two resuscitations share, Finn owns Infidels’ fondly un-Christian “Sweetheart Like You” in perpetuity, and Dylan’s original buries the cover only on “Series of Dreams.” This matter-of-fact six-minute report from the subconscious seems hard to ruin, and Yellowbirds don’t. But Dylan’s vocal, on a song that with his usual contrariness he left off 1989’s Oh Mercy, has a concentration he seldom approached earlier in the decade.
The tribute loses steam second half — I wish two of the iTunes-only add-ons, the Low Anthem’s “Lenny Bruce” and Jesse Elliott’s “Handy Dandy,” had been subbed in for Hannah Cohen’s wan “Covenant Woman” and Marco Benevetto’s instrumental “Every Grain of Sand.” But it sure does prove that Bob Dylan isn’t bigger than rock and roll — while also proving that rock and roll needs ace songwriters more than many current rock and rollers think.