"They were just songs we had done for the publishing company," Bob Dylan once said of the music he recorded with The Band (some of it in his living room, some of it in their basement) over six months in 1967. Whatever else those sessions might have been — an exploration of the bent history of American song; a way of recovering from injuries both psychic and physical sustained while speeding his way through the first seven years of the 196os; a way to kill time as the grass grew in the Catskills — The Basement Tapes were just that. Dylan was off the road for nearly eight years from May 1966 to January 1974; songs would have been his main source of income.
During much of that time, he struggled with his image and his songwriting. But not in 1967, when the songs were still rushing at him. In addition to the 140 tracks recently released on The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11 (66 of them then-new Dylan originals), and the wholly different set of bare-boned trickster parables he crafted for John Wesley Harding, there are these 18 lyrics on Lost on the River, boxed up and languishing in the Dylan archives for more than four decades until his music publisher stumbled upon them. Dylan turned them over to T Bone Burnett, who backed him on the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, to set to music. The impresario behind the 7.9 million-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack recruited a multigenerational, multicultural cast that holed up for two weeks in Capitol Records' Studios A and B in Los Angeles. They finished 44 cuts, with multiple settings for each lyric, from which 20 were selected.
About half of them work, though which half might depend on your love or tolerance for the players involved. Batting for America are Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops; visiting from the United Kingdom are Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons. Don't push "play" expecting a Dylan tribute — an unfair comparison point, but a comparison point just the same. This music struggles to capture his conversational quality and his humor, to say nothing of his ability to merge the mystical and everyday. The Lost on the River crew chooses one or the other, often drawing on the heavy smoke of the portent of the occasion.
Though a captivating Sam Jones documentary (airing on Showtime starting Nov. 21) shows just how collaborative the sessions were, the results most often bear the stamp of the performer at the mic: Costello's ragged soul shout and James' spacey stomp are as welcome as they are familiar. Goldsmith leans on soft '7os crooning, which works just fine on a love song like "Florida Key" but proves too earnest for a Wild West tale like "Card Shark." Giddens' voice is a marvel of unsullied drama on her version of the title track, but her banjo-driven "Spanish Mary" seems like a history lesson.
Which bring us to Mumford, who more than anyone else here delights in the language itself, and draws crucial support from his collaborators — "When I Get My Hands on You" floats on the same weightless groove that buoys James' My Morning Jacket ballads. And the unabashed big melody (and dirty guitar) that Mumford provides for "Stranger" unlocks a carnal spark missing elsewhere (unless Dylan means otherwise when he says "all of my intentions are exposed, not hidden in my clothes"). Both are standouts, as is "The Whistle Is Blowing," where Mumford tips his hat to a woman leaving on an evening train and seems to carry on another Dylan tradition: The verses nod to Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire." When in doubt, borrow.