Bryan Ferry’s love for the music of Bob Dylan has been apparent since his first solo single, a glammed-up romp through “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that beat “1999” to the apocalyptic party punch while finding a wellspring of humor in this very unfunny song. Thirty-four years and many tributes obvious (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”) and not-so-much (Roxy Music’s harmonica-and-organ-driven “Psalm”) later, Ferry has unleashed Dylanesque, a collection of ten of you-know-who’s songs (plus one by our old friend Traditional).
It’s a stellar batch of tunes — executed with a bit too much seriousness at times — buoyed by Ferry’s eternally graceful (and eternally sex-oozing) voice. Recorded live in the studio with the singer’s touring band, Dylanesque is also a very warm record, certainly polished but not overly glossy. According to various reports, Ferry recorded 20-some-odd songs for this project; it’s hard not to wonder what the others were. After all, the songs selected for the album aren’t especially adventurous. “Make You Feel My Love” fits Ferry’s image and style nicely, but it’s already been subjected to a number of high-profile covers in its brief lifetime. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” has still never been done better than Dylan’s original, which was short, sweet and modest. Ferry stretches it out for six minutes, singing each verse twice and allowing plenty of time for solos. And the closer is, of course, “All Along the Watchtower”, another perfect example of a Dylan song that should require no further covers.
On second thought, maybe Dylanesque isn’t as predictable as those choices make it seem. Subtract those three and you’re left with eight songs that haven’t been done to death, and it’s these that form the meat of the record. True, some of them are standards, but “The Times They Are A-Changin'” isn’t an especially likely candidate for a musically irreverent cover by the likes of Ferry. In his hands, the old folk anthem gets electric guitars, keyboards, female background vocalists, and a danceable beat. It loses a couple verses, too, but Dylan covers tend to undergo such changes. Ferry pulls the same stunt on “All I Really Wanna Do”, which uses the Byrds’ hit as its template, from its truncated lyric down to the middle section they invented by changing some chords and the melody. His version is light and pleasant, and takes full advantage of the ladies’ “woo”-ing abilities.
It’s the songs that’ve never been substantial hits for other artists that Ferry pulls off the best. “Simple Twist of Fate” has the most dynamic new arrangement, featuring a heavier beat than Dylan ever used for this song. The lead guitar is excellent throughout but never showy, and the brightest instrumental spot is a violin solo before the final verse. The five minutes go by in what feels like half the time, with Ferry fondling the melody all over the place and injecting it with sensuality and subtle daring. The other standout is “Positively 4th Street”. Stripped of hefty chunks of its lyric — as well as instrumentation, featuring primarily piano and strings — it sheds its bitterness, its venom, and comes across as something gentler. It’s not better than the original — none of these are, and it’s unfair to expect them to be — but Ferry does approach the song from a different angle. Perhaps this is an effect of age; presumably we become more conciliatory in some ways as we grow up, and a sixty-something singer of this song is more likely to be filled with regret than anger.
The only time Ferry really falters is on “Gates of Eden”, which is a risky pick because it never gets covered, and Dylan himself never even performs it (and he’s the ultimate re-interpreter of his own songs). But it manages to be less gripping with minimal glossing up than the voice-and-guitar original. Ferry’s voice is great, taking advantage of its creepiness, but the music has no momentum.
Dylanesque is the rare album of Dylan covers that envisions the songs in unfamiliar musical settings, and it does so without sacrificing the soul of the lyrics. At the same time, Ferry’s personality is apparent throughout, and the uniqueness here is that Dylan’s songs aren’t usually treated so sensually. If some of the more expected songs were excluded in favor of off-the-beaten-path material, this already excellent album would be a real gem.