Blonde On The Tracks (Tiny Ghost records – and Bandcamp)
There are as many ways to cover Bob Dylan as there are ways that Bob Dylan has remade/remodelled – or covered – his own songs. As anyone who has seen the man in the past four decades especially can attest, not only are the songs never the same, sometimes they barely qualify as the same song.
Generally speaking though, the wisdom with covers is you either play safe and be wholly faithful (which pleases the diehards, casual listeners and maybe risk-averse radio and TV, but can leave everyone eventually wondering if they need a copy of a song they already have) or you stamp your personality on the song, reshaping it musically or even lyrically, and making it your own (which pleases the critics, probably your own fans and possibly Dylan himself, but can sometimes have people wondering if it’s the song or the persona they’re here for).
On her album of Dylan songs, Emma Swift does neither. Or both. And that is a big part of the success of this record. Well, that and her voice which feels like the slowly pouring centre of a warm chocolate fondant.
Structurally, these eight songs - from the mid ‘60s to the mid ‘70s principally, with the notable exception of the freshly minted I Contain Multitudes - which Dylan released barely weeks before Swift’s version emerged – retain their shapes, their melodies and their language, including the male self-references.
That isn’t to say they are replicas of the original arrangements. From its opening Queen Jane Approximately, where guitarists Robyn Hitchcock and Pat Sansone – who also produces - jingle, jangle and chime like Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark reunited on 12 and 6 strings, to You’re A Big Girl Now, where Jon Estes’ fluidly solid bass and the keyboards of (I presume) Sansone lay a bed of southern soul rock before the guitars rise from the bed like a waking Lazarus, Swift and Sansone, nudge songs into aligned but different lanes.
Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands plays as a quiet bar band waltz, The Man In Me brings the front row of the small church choir to the soul ballad party, One Of Us Must Know leans into country rock with a pedal steel filigree from Thayer Serrano, and the piano in the dual-twang Going Going Gone reminds you that this barroom is shutting soon and you haven’t finished that last shot of rye.
(Read about the background to this album in this interview with Emma Swift )
Save for Queen Jane …, though, even at their most forward-pressing the rest of the arrangements work as support staff, as the colours filling in the background and the structures supporting the platform. For it is in the intimate that Blonde On The Tracks is elevated.
It is in the way Swift moulds these songs to her naturally melancholic timbre, the way she deepens the moments of love and twists the more ambiguous sentiments further, and the way the lines directed at a woman resonate so starkly in the voice of a woman, that remakes your relationship to these songs (or discovers a relationship for you if you skipped the underplayed beauty of 1970’s New Morning album and the more mixed Planet Waves from 1974).
It is in short, in the way Swift brings a close listener’s ear and a creative translator’s heart to the fore in a way only the best interpreters can manage.
Take You’re A Big Girl Now, originally heard on Blood On The Tracks as a wised-up observation from someone wanting to lean away from committing emotionally. In Swift’s hands, the eye being cast over the last embers of this relationship, is of one who isn’t trying to escape unscathed. The smallest hesitation in the line “Oh, but what a shame if all we've shared can't last/I can change, I swear, oh” makes that clear. And the song changes before you.
Likewise, in One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) whose formal, bracketed addition in the title signalled the ambiguous tone of mid ‘60s Dylan, Swift refocuses the narrative emotion. Not, as you might imagine, into a simpler hurt/need story but turning the ambiguity on itself, widening the gap between each party. It’s fascinating.
While the full 12 minute, all-valley-no-peaks, quite stunning Sad Eyed Lady … is an exercise in setting a course and holding firm to it that might have worried a suit if she’d been doing this at some label, in some ways the boldest move is Swift’s decision, the album all but done at the time, to take on I Contain Multitudes from June’s movingly brilliant Rough And Rowdy Ways.
It’s a song of the long gaze backwards, the reminiscence and re-examination of certainties – with a scattering of droll dark humour included – and a projection into a very near future that has little time to waste on the speculative. By doing nothing more than taking up what is already there though, Swift softens the wizened observer and accentuates the feeling participant, bringing layers of emotion to the lines.
And that in the end that is what makes Blonde On The Tracks not just a collection of songs sung well, nor a hitch on the wagon of a great writer, but a personal statement of craft and feeling and examination. An interpreter’s gift writ large.
*There are no links to streaming services for this album, as the record has been withheld from them - a strongly held position of Emma Swift’s whose demand for fair recompense for artists is one worth pursuing with the likes of Spotify, who are happy to profit, less happy to share. You can buy Blonde On The Tracks from stores, online and physical, in vinyl and CD, and from Bandcamp.