Bob Dylan at the 3arena, Dublin, 11 May 2017
There’s a bit in Todd Haynes’ anti-biopic I’m Not There where one of its many alternate versions of Bob Dylan – portrayed in this segment by Cate Blanchett – plays Ballad of a Thin Man. Blanchet’s character has just rebuked a probing journalist trying to figure out the man behind the artist, and the sequence that follows flows through a series of disjointed not-quite match cuts: The English journalist gets himself lost in the lyrics of the song, the Black Panthers listen to the track on repeat and interpret it as a call to revolution, Blanchett is onstage in London, furiously bashing out the tune out on a grand piano. At the end of the song the audience boos. Somebody tosses a bottle at the stage.
The whole sequence is dense with surreal imagery – and if the purpose is to explore the true meaning behind the music, the film seems to fail. It makes the song more abstract and incomprehensible, rather than less so.
When Dylan – the real, 2017 version – closes his Dublin show with that same song, nobody boos. But maybe they should. If the folks who decried Dylan for going electric could see him now they’d probably take 1966 electric Dylan back with open arms and blare that guy’s tunes as they picketed 2017 Bob Dylan’s shows.
Not that Dylan gives a fuck, either then or now. When Dylan plays Ballad of a Thin Man for the sold-out 3arena, he isn’t tossing the audience a treat for patiently sitting through a set that drew heavily on the incongruous mix of Dylan tracks written this century and classic big band standards from the back catalogue of Frank Sinatra.
Rather it is the culmination of a singular show from an artist and backing jamming their way through a set of songs that – though they came from different places – all just fit together with reassuring ease. The show flows like smooth jazz. The band bash out number after number like the resident band in an old-time swing club, at times more like a fixture in a room rather than the thing everyone has come here to pay attention to.
With the exploration of the classic numbers by way of Sinatra – something Dylan has done on his last three albums now – it’s a step into inoffensive, sepia tinted territory that would be the reasonable stomping ground of a septuagenarian artist at the tail end of a 55 year career.
And yet – like Ballad of a Thin Man, like countless things Dylan has done over the years – there’s an incomprehensibility to things that is more than a little disturbing. His grizzled voice belts out each word with edge to it like somebody’s beaten him up a bit before the show. He growls out a patchworked melody that utterly refuses to land where it might be expected to.
His pitch leaps up and down from bar to bar. The likes of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright and Tangled Up in Blue get stretched out, distorted, practically buried beneath odd stresses and inflections on unexpected words. For those who came to hear those new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition, the lyrics aren’t easy to even find.
Combine this with the way Dylan totally forgoes even a pretence of audience interaction, and you get an artist who gives so little to work with that he should be impossible to even approach. Boos wouldn’t be unwarranted, but none come.
Dylan isn’t easy. Todd Haynes got that in the non-linear, conceptual chaos of I’m Not There. And maybe the Nobel Prize committee got that too. “New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” don’t just mean taking the lines out of the music and reading them as page poetry. That’s possible of course. You could do it with Desolation Row or even Blowing in the Wind. But that’s losing half the art.
These songs were more than the couple of acoustic guitar chords of their original versions, and by building them up heavily rearranged into his current band set up – lashing in disparate helpings of jazz and country as he goes – Dylan is playing with the poetry of his songs in a way that can’t be easily taken apart and analysed in terms of lyrics, or voice, or melody. His work is strange and multiple. And here is – in 2017, in front of a sold-out arena of fans – mining that contradictory art for all it’s worth.
Dylan has been so many different people over the course of his career – and the current version is something new and worthwhile. You could tie yourself up in knots trying to reconcile the 2017 version with any others. The American classics he dots through his set offer up a strange spooky tenderness despite the spikiness of his vocal delivery. The old Dylan tunes hold up under the strain of heavy rearrangement and emerge, shorn of comforting familiarity, as something far more interesting.
As he closes his encore with Ballad of a Thin Man Dylan stands hunched over his grand piano, jerking his way across the keyboard with a spiderish motion. The stage lights – practically unchanged for the whole show – are harsh bars of yellow spotlights located behind the band, casting hard silhouettes across the vacant front of the stage.
The surreal tune gets rendered more incomprehensible by the fact that half the lyrics get rough and mangled on the verses. When the heavy main chords and the chilling refrain of “Dooo yooo, mist-ahh Jooones?” comes rattling in it’s almost a surprise, like the song could equally have wandered off to some other place entirely.
Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has been on the road without any significant break since 1988. And somehow, if it ever rolls around this way again, he’ll probably have a have whole bunch of new weird ideas to try out.