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Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Triplicate the 38th studio album from Bob Dylan.
In the same way that Citizen Kane established the vernacular for film so thoroughly that it’s hard for modern viewers to see its influence on modern film, Bob Dylan established so thoroughly what we expect from a musical artiste. We expect stylistic left turns. We expect weird Christian phases. We expect touring, and recontextualizing of recorded music on the road. We expect double albums when the greatness can’t be confined to 45 minutes. We expect meaningful, deep lyrics, and we expect our artists to continue to push themselves and try new things on late period albums.
There’s not much Dylan hasn’t done; he’s even done the standards album thing that older legacy artists do, spending 2015’s Shadows In the Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels tearing down and barely rebuilding songs from the Sinatra songbook. He couples one of the few things he hasn’t done in his career--a triple LP- with yet another set of standards covers on Triplicate, his 38th studio LP. Arranged around three themes--Til The Sun Goes Down, Devil Dolls and Comin’ Home Late--Triplicate is 30 songs that are even older than Dylan himself--some of these go back to the ‘20s--and another halting, stunning collection from America’s greatest single cultural figure of the 20th century.
If you didn’t ride for his last two albums, Triplicate is probably a tough sell--three whole albums of Bob moaning out songs from the ‘20s?--but these standards albums are a creative wellspring for Dylan. The pressure to write new songs is gone, and instead, he spends Triplicate finding new ways to recontextualize these songs that are as old as recorded music itself. Dylan doesn’t make the Rod Stewart version of a standards album; these songs are haunting, barren, and worn. Dylan’s voice has weathered into something that sounds like an old oak tree whistling in a snow storm. The whole album sounds like it was transferred from 78.
Where Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels were interesting for their selections--Dylan was covering the deepest cuts imaginable--Triplicate is more of a widescreen love affair with the American songbook. You get covers of “Stormy Weather”--which sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the tornado in Wizard of Oz--alongside the jazz standard “My One and Only Love,” You get “As Time Goes By,” a song famous from Casablanca alongside “Braggin’” a song so obscure, you can’t find a version that seems remotely like Dylan’s on any streaming service.
It’s hard to imagine that when he was sitting in the Columbia Records offices 60 years ago waiting to put pen to paper on his deal that Dylan thought he’d be cutting an album with a cover of “I Could Have Told You.” But in some ways, his whole career has been a conversation with music of the past, from gospel to folk to blues. That he’s closing the loop of his career with the oldest possible music he’s listened to as he gets older isn’t just admirable, it’s inspiring.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.