For all the hushed reverence that surrounds The Basement Tapes [see Reissues p109] and their almost mythical creation underneath a big pink house in West Saugerties long ago, the one thing they aren't is tasteful. Robbie Robertson recalled some of the sessions in that summer of 1967 as "reefer run amok," and despite the high seriousness of "This Wheel's On Fire" or "Too Much Of Nothing," the recordings are also marked by an antic merriment.
So the concept of a "super-group" writing music to accompany a box of recently discovered Bob Dylan lyrics that date from that same legendary period could seem at odds with the ramshackle spontaneity and unfettered creativity that characterised those first sessions.
On the one hand, there's a beautiful burnt-out rock star. He's recovering from on-the-road mania and a motorcycle crash ("motorcycle crash" for conspiracy theorists), rebalancing himself through an intensely creative purge of words and music, running free away from prying eyes and devouring masses. On the other, there's Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford being followed by a film crew in Capitol Studios for a forthcoming Showtime documentary about the recording of The New Basement Tapes. No secrets, no hand-to-hand bootlegs, no mystery: just, in the doomiest worst case scenario, a plush-covered, air-conditioned heritage exercise.
It's a relief to find, then, that Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes isn't squashed flat by the weight of history, rock star legs sticking out from underneath Big Pink and a tonne of rusty tape canisters. It has a slight airlessness at times, but that feels like an inevitable consequence of the artificial, high-stakes origins of the project.
The recording was initiated with the discovery of a box of lyrics that dated from the same period as the Basement Tapes sessions. Dylan passed them on to his trusted long-time collaborator T Bone Burnett and, in turn, Burnett rounded up a group of musicians to lift the words off the paper: Costello, Mumford, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Writing individually but also working and playing across each other's songs, this core collective recorded the two-dozen songs in multiple versions during two weeks in Los Angeles, all overseen by the stalwart Burnett.
While the project's website suggests this is a "music event 47 years in the making," the musicians "in collaboration with the 26-year old Bob Dylan," the truth is a bit less Dr Who.
The lyrics, with their gypsies and sailors, rambling men and disconcerting women, are Dylan's and it is certainly possible to hear aspects of his persona coming through in different performers. Giddens' antique shanty: to accompany "Spanish Mary" harks back to a seductive `trail arr' past, asking "is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?"; Costello's "Married To My Hack," a punkish blast of wordplay, is a telling mix of the lustful and the uxorious. Goldsmith, meanwhile, plays the elegant country troubadour on the punchy cautionary tale of Card Shark and the wistful lost souls parade that is Liberty Street.
It would be a push, though, to say Dylan felt like a concrete presence on this record: it feels, mostly, like a group of accomplished songwriters plying their trade. And they are very accomplished. Jim James particularly has a great strike rate, coolly at home with both extremes of Basement-era emotion, the dark and the light. Opening track "Down On The Bottom" — "No place to go but up" — is a song of desperation, the sound of somebody pulling themselves from the rushy tangled depths. "Nothing To It," meanwhile, might have "just contemplated killing a man" but it has an easy, brassy roll, knowing loucheness and jaunty baritone vocals — "You don't have to turn your pockets inside out / I'm sure you can give me something." On the jazzy slide of "Hidee Hidee Ho #11," James oozes lascivious laziness, just-controlled laughter straining his voice as he sings. Giddens, meanwhile, repeatedly chants "making love wherever we go" in the background, as if he might just have tripped and fallen awkwardly.
James is not alone in revelling in the rowdier spirit of these songs: Mumford does a fine job with the innuendo of "Stranger" — "All of my intentions are exposed / Not hidden in my clothes" — a wild western song that cheerily mixes sex and death (there's also a "tombstone pearl-handled revolver" and a pale man "with a halo in his hair"). "Kansas City," meanwhile, is one they "threw the kitchen sink at", according to Mumford. With Johnny Depp on guitar and Haim on backing vocals, it's blurring of fame-fatigue ("just how long must I keep singing the same old song?") and romantic betrayal rising over the showbiz clutter.
It's far from a reckless or irreverent record — James and Costello's serious, soulful version of the redemptive title track bears emphatic witness to that — but neither is it a work of deferential scholarship and meticulous archaeology. "The New Basement Tapes" is a misnomer: it's song-setting, rather than scene-stealing. Yet there is undoubted fascination in finding the tracks and traces of Dylan: a line that catches with spite, tumbles into a dream, or hoots with bawdy glee. Nobody on this record fails to acquit themselves gracefully, but these words can only really offer a faint radioactive crackle, the drifting fall-out of that distant West Saugerties Big Bang. It's natural to wonder what Dylan might have made of them. Once again, though, he's not there.