A nice little victory for one of our most underappreciated vocalists.
Bob Dylan’s timeless songs lend themselves to being revamped, remodeled, demolished and built up from dust in manners rendering them almost unrecognizable. The man himself has been known to do exactly that. Joan Osborne doesn’t radicalize the compositions on Songs of Bob Dylan, but the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter does demonstrate each piece’s malleability.
Stalwart Dylan fans may form their own conclusions as soon as they glance at the running order. Osborne hasn’t gone straight for the hits nor has she ignored them. Her heartfelt take on “Tangled Up in Blue” sets the tone, suggesting that she’s not afraid to take up one of Bob’s bawdiest songs. The lyrics involve a stripper and some crude sexuality plus the stream-of-consciousness lines that creep their way into Dylan songs. She doesn’t flinch at any of it, giving us a performance that stands as one of her best. Her approach to the more tangled lines of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” doesn’t come off quite as smoothly but she’s still far from an amateur wrestling with one of American music’s most mercurial figures.
More familiar fodder, such as “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” and “Buckets of Rain,” sounds neither forced nor perfunctory. The real meat comes in the form of a hymn like “Dark Eyes.” There, Osborne captures the refined poetry of the author’s lines, adding to them a new emotional depth that recalls Joan Baez’s dances with Dylan’s output. “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” doesn’t fair as well, feeling rushed and as though the singer is outpaced by the music as she struggles to find her place in a flood of sound.
That only speaks to her sense of risk, though. There are no guarantees with Dylan’s music. Attempting something grand and coming up short seems only par for the course, and those missteps only make the successes that much more rewarding. And as for those successes? “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” sounds as much like a first-run Osborne track as it does a familiar classic, and its undeniable beauty is among the most moving here; “Highway 61 Revisited” has rarely had as much muscle. “Masters of War,” a song one often wishes were obsolete, is undeniably pointed and relevant at this moment in time; to not include it would’ve probably been disingenuous. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could top Sufjan Stevens’ “Ring Them Bells,” but the take here comes pretty damn close to equaling its audacity and ingenuity.
Taken as a whole, Songs of Bob Dylan amounts to a nice little victory for one of our most underappreciated vocalists. Her voice sounds better than before and that’s saying something; she’s been a consistently formidable presence for over a quarter century now. Maybe some of that continued strength comes from her reluctance to overreach, her uncanny way of finding the power in the words themselves rather than seeking to create it in meaningless embellishments.
Like the artist who created it, Songs of Bob Dylan wins us over quietly and with a grace that’s lost on a good number of performers today. It’s not Osborne’s best work, but it is one more very fine addition to an oeuvre that has more hits than misses. In re-imagining how Dylan’s songwriting can emotionally devastate the listener, few others have done so as effectively.