In 2011, Bob Dylan's Egyptian Records imprint released a record on which Jack White, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams and Dylan himself set 12 previously unpublished lyrics by Hank Williams to new music.
Instigating the Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams project may have jogged Dylan's memory regarding the whereabouts of some of his own back pages. Shortly after the album was released, T Bone Burnett, the ubiquitous enabler of American roots music, received a call from Dylan's publishers revealing the discovery of an entire box of words, dating from 1967, which Dylan had apparently forgotten even existed. Would Burnett, a friend since the days of Rolling Thunder in the mid-'70s, care to do something with them?
Because the lyrics were contemporaneous with The Basement Tapes, Burnett duly assembled a modern-day approximation of The Band in the form of Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens from Carolina Chocolate Drops. The group of all-singing multi-instrumentalists convened for two weeks to transform lost scraps into living songs, working as an ensemble and taking lead vocals on three tracks each.
The unveiling of these 15 "new" Basement-era songs (20 on the deluxe version) coincides with the release of The Basement Tapes Complete, an exhaustive six-disc excavation of the wild, woolly treasure trove of originals, covers, standards, country, blues and folk songs recorded by Dylan and The Band in the basement of Big Pink in 1967 (see feature page 34). It's entirely typical of Dylan that, even as one hand is flourishing what is being billed as the royal flush of unexpurgated Basement recordings, the other is shuffling yet more mystery and intrigue into the deck.
In truth, the shared DNA between Lost On The River and the original Basement Tapes can appear negligible; the departure points for these songs are often inauspicious. It's not hard to divine, for instance, why Dylan might have quickly lost interest in the generic love lyric of "When I Get My Hands On You," which Mumford turns into a creeping soul number with a staccato violin pulse, or the lovelorn whimsy of "Florida Key." Even the most routine songs, however, convey some glimmer of an extraordinary imagination at work. "I want a Tombstone pearl-handled revolver," runs a line in the otherwise unremarkable "Stranger." "I want to meet a pale man with a halo in his hair."
Other songs, such as "Spanish Lady," clearly arrived more fully formed. Set to a brooding minor-key melody not a million miles from the traditional "Blackjack Davey," recorded by Dylan on Good As I Been To You, the words toy with the tropes of countless old folk narratives, with three sailors pondering an existential riddle: "Beggar man, tell me no lie / Is it a mystery to live, or is it a mystery to die?" Musically, it's an outstanding collective performance, dominated by Giddens' ominous minstrel banjo and powerful vocal. It aches to be performed by Dylan himself.
Elsewhere, it's diverting to hear wildly different styles applied to the same words. Written by James but sung with quavering conviction by Costello, "Lost On The River #12" is a moving if slightly ponderous country-soul ballad which wouldn't have sounded out of place on Costello's The Delivery Man. A later variation on the same lyric, "Lost On The River #20," turns the song into the sombre reflection of someone who escaped the madness of being Bob Dylan in 1965 and 1966 and can scarcely believe he's survived to tell the tale. "The waves they rolled and tumbled over me / I spied dry land and a tall, veiled tree / I knew that soon that's where I'd like to be." Sung by Giddens, it's an eerily beautiful meditation.
Water, women and — oddly — Kansas feature heavily. "Kansas City" is melancholic country-folk with a rousing chorus which finds Dylan, not for the first time, in thrall to a "gypsy woman", though Mumford's racked vocals over-egg the sense of unvarnished emotional vulnerability in lines like "You invited me into your house / Then you say, 'You've gotta pay forwhat you break.'" The same town hosts Goldsmith's "Liberty Street", which sounds like a Richard Manuel ballad sung by Jackson Browne. Costello's take on the same words, retitled "Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street)", is a time-shifting racket which honours the rough-hewn spontaneity of the original Basement Tapes by remaining apparently half-finished.
Such attempts to locate the loose-limbed spirit of adventure that permeated Big Pink in 1967 can't help but feel a trifle contrived, yet the album largely succeeds in avoiding the pitfall of treating these words with stifling reverence. The hugely enjoyable "Nothing To It" rides a hollering, funky backyard groove all the way from The Band to Hall & Oates, slipping in a deceptively personal lyric as it does so, while "Duncan And Jimmy" and "Card Shark" are light-hearted character songs, the music played high on fiddle, banjo, mandolin and ukulele.
Elsewhere, there are intriguing echoes of other Dylans. Opener "Down On The Bottom" revisits the heartsick prowl of Time Out Of Mind, a slow, swampy evocation of dread — "No place to go but up / Always been in trouble, nearly all my life" — sung superbly by James. Giddens' scatted backing vocals on the lurching "Married To My Hack" recall New Morning oddity "If Dogs Run Free", although the song's boozily unbuttoned demeanour — "Got 15 women and all of them swimming," roars Costello — is recognisably Big Pink in tone. Best of all is "Hidee Hidee Ho #11", a joyously slinky thing sung by James with a mischievous leer while Giddens coos in the background. A slow stroll in the moonlight, it recalls the riverboat shuffles of Love And Theft.
What does it all add up to? Lost On The River is an album of good, sometimes excellent songs with a unique creation story which, in the end, adds little of substance to the narrative of perhaps the most mythologised recordings in musical history. As footnotes go, however, it's an entertaining, energised and often fascinating one.