Twelve months ago, the American producer T Bone Burnett was contacted by Bob Dylan's publisher. No huge surprise there; after all, he had known Dylan since 1975, when he'd toured with him as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue. It was what the publisher said to Burnett that was the shocker.
A box had been found, he said, containing handwritten lyrics from 1967, the year when Dylan, recuperating from a motorcycle accident and turning his back on the toxicity of world fame, huddled in a Woodstock garage with the Band and recorded what would eventually become known as the Basement Tapes. None of the lyrics had been set to music, the publisher went on. Would Burnett like to have a go?
For almost any musician, such a request is the stuff that dreams are made of. So fabled are those Woodstock recordings in the minds of Dylanologists, many have been driven half mad in their efforts to track down every last recorded second of the sessions. Officially and unofficially, a sort of drip-feed process has slowly disseminated the songs Dylan made with the Band. In November, all 138 of them will finally be released as a box set. At the same time, Burnett and the group of musicians he tasked with setting those newly discovered lyrics to music will present Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes to the world.
If the former release is likely to finally bring closure to Dylan fans (bar the ones who will never be at peace), the latter may ruffle their feathers. For what could be more sacrosanct than a Dylan lyric? Or more sacrilegious than another musician taking liberties with it?
Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens, from Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Taylor Goldsmith, of Dawes, are the villains in this particular scenario. It has to be said, none of them looks remotely guilty in the Showtime documentary about the making of Lost on the River. Nor, in the flesh, do Costello and Burnett, on a visit to London to discuss the album. On the contrary, they beam, enthuse, laugh and josh. You hear that same spirit of freedom on the record. All five of the musicians went away and, singly or in pairs, set lyrics to music, before they convened at Capitol Studios, in Hollywood, for an intense, two-week session. More than 40 songs were recorded; 15 of these make up the album.
"We tried not to be too analytical," Costello recalls. "I think that's one of the reasons we recorded the songs quickly." There was no sense of possessiveness about a particular version, he adds: "It would have been silly." "It would have been embarrassing," Burnett says. "Plus, with Bob being this generous, nobody could really start being less generous. He'd set the standard for generosity, if you like. I think everyone thought, `OK, well, Bob is letting me write this song, and he's letting that guy write the song as well.' "
Burnett — the man who has soundtracked the Coens' films, and is responsible for the striking theme song for True Detective — is an avuncular presence who would once have seemed in stark contrast to the man beside him. Costello's reputation for surliness may have been justified in the early years, but when we meet, he positively twinkles with bonhomie. Where once he would have met inquiries about how Burnett's motley crew felt, treading on such hallowed ground, with a snarl, today he just cackles.
"There were moments," he says, "when I did start thinking, 'Oh my God, perhaps I shouldn't have taken that much of a liberty.' Everyone had a different take on where the border between licence and presumption was located. But then you hear four versions of the same lyric that are so radically different — any anxieties about whether you might have gone too far just went away, because it was simply too joyful just being able to play them all."
Has Dylan listened to the results? "Some," Burnett says, "but only a little bit. He turned the words over to us, and I haven't ever felt the need to clear it with him, or seek his approval. I'm sure he'll hear it all at some point. He asked for some stuff, and I sent him a bit of it, but I don't need to know how he feels." "We didn't get a cease and desist, put it that way," Costello adds.
"Look, he loves us all," the producer continues. "Bob's full of love, he's very unlike what people think. He doesn't need anything back." "And we don't need a lap of honour," Costello says, "or a blessing. We've already got everything we could possibly wish for, and the licence to do what we want with it, and have the fun that we've had."
Costello says trawling through the lyrics was a humbling experience that made him think to himself, "If you wrote a line like that, you wouldn't keep it in a drawer for 47 years. Unless you were Bob Dylan." The key feeling during the sessions was freedom, not fear, he enthuses. "We knew we had to go for it. We had plenty of space for the little bit of writing technique we have each accrued. And look, what about all the classical composers who have set poetry to music — good and indifferent poetry? And the whole process of folk music is texts, handed on. So it was a case of treating it in that way and thinking, 'What are the ideas in this lyric that really speak to me?"'
Many of the songs were recorded in just one take, and all five musicians ventured out of their comfort zones by playing their second or third instruments. "I think there's a great danger in trying to have an official version of anything when it comes to Dylan," Costello says. "He's made a vocation, a path in music, out of confounding expectations. And, as great as his records are, he will then turn up and play Tangled Up in Blue with completely different lyrics. "It's not like we are writing the next Bob Dylan record. The next Bob Dylan record is coming out." "And it's insanely good," Burnett says. "And guess what?" Costello continues. "Ile didn't write any of the songs on it. So there you go." None of the five musicians really knew each other — another key factor, Costello says, in the success of the sessions. In any case, he adds, the concept of musicians from different bands or genres coming together to create something new is, for him and his ilk, the most natural thing in the world. "Don't forget, Dylan had Mick Ronson in his band. And in your head, you're thinking, `Mick Ronson? He's one of the Spiders from Mars — what's he doing in Bob Dylan's band?'
"Look, we're not kids, writing down our favourite football team. We're actually people, and the imaginary version of these people is never quite what they are or what you think it's going to be. I didn't see Bob live unti1 1978, and he had Steve Douglas on sax, who played on all the Spector records, and Elvis's bass player, and Ian Wallace from King Crimson — this deeply 'unusual' combination of musicians. So me being in a room with Jim James and Marcus Mumford is nothing."
The results are intoxicating: James's "Instant Karma"-meets-Womack & Womack setting of "Nothing to It"; Giddens and Mumford's version of the title track, which Costello describes as "just heart-stopping"; Costello's own brutal, blistering take on "Married to My Hack"; Goldsmith and Mumford's spine-tinglingly beautiful arrangement of "When I Get My I Hands on You."
But the album's greatest achievement is that it sets both lyrics and listener free. Immersion in the songs frees you from the cold, closed cloisters of Dylanology, and sensitises you afresh to the emotional and psychological richness of the great man's words.
As gifts go, that's a hell of a present. Yes, it took a long time arriving. But it's here now. Listen to it. It's joyful.