Culture & Criticism Since 2003
We first became aware of Joan Osborne’s ability to interpret Bob Dylan during her 1999 collaboration with the poet himself on a sterling version of “Chimes Of Freedom” (from the television soundtrack The 60’s). On that recording, it became evident that Osborne had the innate ability to connect with Dylan’s work on both a poetic and emotional level. Now, her new record (Songs of Bob Dylan) provides further evidence of this, presenting one of the best compilations of Dylan’s work to ever be released. In sum, this album sets out to give a woman’s voice to Dylan’s work, and the experiment is riveting. Other than the Dylan covers that Joan Baez has released over the years, there are no better interpretations of Dylan’s work by a female vocalist on record. But what’s truly special about this recording is found in Osborne’s play-list. Rather than revisit Dylan’s best known songs, Osborne leads us back to 13 of his overlooked classics, putting an indelible stamp on a series of gems that aren’t always in those “best Dylan songs” discussions. Other than “Highway 61,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Masters of War” and “Rainy Day Women,” most casual listeners will not be intimately familiar with the majority of these pieces. However, that should not stop you from spinning the record, because these songs simultaneously spotlight Dylan’s amazing range as a writer and Osborne’s prowess as a vocalist; in turn, the performances compel repeated samplings. While each of the cuts has something profound to offer, three stand out: “Dark Eyes” (Empire Burlesque); “Ring Them Bells” (Oh! Mercy); and “Spanish Harlem Incident” (Another Side of Bob Dylan). These renditions are stunning in style and scope, illuminating Dylan’s poetic brilliance and showing in real time why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. While “Dark Eyes” and “Ring Them Bells” are unmistakable Shakespearean poems set to music, “Spanish Harlem” is an ode to Ginsberg and Kerouac – a moving picture; a love story told in the street. And Osborne’s performance here actually (impossibly!) one-ups Dylan’s original recording – with the inclusion of saxophone and organ giving broad dimension to Dylan’s 50 year-old script. In essence, this cover of “Spanish Harlem” makes clear that Osborne was destine to make the Songs of Bob Dylan: On some astral plane, she and Dylan are connected. It’s as if a part of her mission was to update the old poet’s catalog and bring some of his forgotten classics to a new generation’s ears.