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Bob Dylan, ‘Triplicate': Album Review

Columbia
Columbia

If you accept “Because he’s Bob Dylan” as an answer to the question, “Why has Bob Dylan made a third album of cover songs from the ’30s through ’50s, and this time it’s three records?,” then his sentimental journey of the past few years makes a little more sense.

Dylan has defied expectations so many times over the past five decades that “Because he’s Bob Dylan” is not only an acceptable explanation of his various musical adventures, it’s pretty much the expected one.

On his first-ever three-record set, he revisits the same style of decades-old standards, most of them covered by Frank Sinatra during his long career, that filled up his last two albums, 2015’s Shadows in the Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels. And like those records, Triplicate finds Dylan a bit out of his element but every bit committed to the material.

Dylan divides Triplicate‘s three discs into a trio of sections based on songs’ themes, but really they all fall under the same umbrella. The list of classic tunes from the era are endless, and even after two previous albums of these songs, Dylan manages to find 30 more, almost every single one of them staples of the Great American Songbook. On the LP’s best tracks — “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” “I Could Have Told You,” “My One and Only Love,” “Stardust,” “Why Was I Born” — he slips into a cozy late-night warmth that’s rich, honest and just a little bit off-putting.

Most singers in the past, even Sinatra, uncovered the gooey sentimentality not so buried in these songs. Dylan, on the other hand, imbues many of these cuts, especially the most lovelorn ones, with a sense of despair that the songwriters may or may not have intended. His weathered rasp gives a line like “One day you turn around and it’s summer/ The next day you turn around and it’s fall” (from “September of My Years”) even more gloomy doom than this thoroughly depressing song has ever had.

So for that Dylan must be commended. But like its predecessors, Triplicate presents one of modern music’s greatest artists in a setting that’s doesn’t always suit him. Then again, his entire career has been about moving outside of his box, whether via the country back roads of Nashville Skyline or the gospel excursions of his late ’70s and early ’80s albums. It was only a matter of time before the era’s finest songwriter would cover standards written by an earlier generation’s best. But who could have expected five discs of these songs?

Dylan’s last album of original material, 2012’s Tempest, was inspired by the past, as were several of his most recent records leading up to it. Triplicate, like the two albums that came before it, brings in the middle men. It’s both a tribute to and a loving glance back at songs that were popular during Dylan’s youth (as well as some from before he was even born). It’s a tip of the hat from one great songwriter to dozens of others, and a rare swerve into a reflective mood by an artist who’s always kept his feelings at a sizable distance. Triplicate, warts and all, makes the consistently enigmatic and occasionally frustrating Dylan, for one of the few times in his career, invitingly human.

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