Two versions of one of the most celebrated unreleased tracks in the Bob Dylan canon inform the well-conceived and smartly executed soundtrack for Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.” An anomaly of a song that Dylan recorded with the Band during their late ‘60s “Basement Tapes” era, it appears here for the first time as an official Dylan release at the opposite end of the soundtrack from Sonic Youth’s version.
Superficially, the tracks could not be more different. Underneath, however, they share dark, haunting and ambiguous qualities that rattle the soul; it’s Dylan with a mask on, writing a song a position of retreat and disillusionment and recording it in a daze. Greil Marcus famously referred to the song as “a trance, a waking dream, a whirlpool … Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music itself” and those elements not only exist in the versions, they rise up in tracks such as Tom Verlaine’s take on “Cold Irons Bound,” Mark Lanegan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” and a handful of others.
In this collection, 29 singers get to play the part of Dylan — six actors play the character based on Dylan in the pic — and in nearly every case the performer’s personality spills over into the interpretation. Performances share a live feel: This no re-creation of Dylan records, the antithesis of the way Beatles music has been recorded for “I Am Sam.” (“Across the Universe” lands somewhere in the middle). The cues Haynes provided the musicians were often live tracks from bootlegs, moments in which one hears Dylan and his mates inventing a marriage of folk music and rock ‘n’ roll as they went along. Nowadays we’d call it DIY, three decades ago it was punk and before that it was doing whatever felt natural and that seems easier to grasp than making “Just Like a Woman” sound the way it did on radio in 1966. It’s a soundtrack that captures that which feels correct, not necessarily what’s historically correct. Stephen Malkmus and a band featuring Verlaine, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Smokey Hormel and Dylan’s current bassist Tony Garnier is roiling with a nervous sense of adventure and discovery on “Ballad of Thin Man”; Jeff Tweedy sings “Simple Twist of Fate” as if he recorded the endless verses shortly after a nap. John Doe supplies a warming presence on two songs, Sufjan Stevens let’s the bubble fly off the surface of “Ring Them Bells” and Bob Forrest’s reading of “Moonshiner” smartly connects the modern Dylan with the music that initially inspired him. Credit for the inspired effort also belongs with Ranaldo and Joe Henry, the key producers here.