The most eagerly-anticipated new album of 2035 was released this week, as ninety-four year old Bob Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Crap I Never Planned To Release” hit the airwaves on Tuesday. Coinciding with Dylan’s seventy-fifth year as a recording artist, “Crap” is a sprawling, maddening but ultimately rewarding and occasionally brilliant addition to the Dylan oeuvre, with undiscovered gems and a handful of new recordings which illustrate his still vital presence in the rock pantheon.
This has been a banner year for Dylan, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Tony award for the musical version of his Greenwich Village years called “Blowin’!” and his week-long sting as a guest judge and mentor on the still popular “American Idol.” The “Idol” appearance was marred by controversy, of course, as Dylan was shown yelling at one of the finalists to “stop destroying my legacy you kids!”
This latest collection has Dylan looking back on his Minnesota troubador roots while at the same time making peace with modern technology. Late last year, he bought his first computer, and on this new album seems to be excited about the possibilities of using what he refers to in the opening track, “I Think I Like This,” as “the bleeps and blips, the ones and zeros” of digital recording. He even had a special microphone (‘the Zimmerman’) designed, which allows him to electronically add entire notes to his vocal range.
The album, in a nod to nostalgia, is being released on six actual physical discs. Although primarily a novelty item (each disc only holds about an hour of music), this ‘boxed set’ is noteworthy for the inclusion of words printed on paper listing each of the songs in the order Dylan performs them. Naturally, the songs will also be availble for download into your Individual-Digital Ear Accessory. The Apple I-DEA version of the album includes seven hundred tracks not available in the physical release.
The first part of “Vol. 12” is the most revelatory, as it includes six new songs. The best of these, a rollicking country-blues wrapped around a folk-punk groove, reflects Dylan’s recent conversion to Islam. Entitled “Osama (Might Be Comin’ Back)”, the tune is kicked off by Dylan’s funereal noodling on an antique instrument known as a ‘B-3’ organ, and features the sounds of drone missiles and a haunting refrain from a children’s choir.
This is followed by the strangest track in the collection. A collaboration with The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, “R U From Minnesota 2?” is, on it’s surface, a slight acoustic number distinguished only by the return to the studio of TAFKATAFKAP after 20 years as an ordained minister for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But underneath, you can almost feel the existential angst and whispered questions—and the implication that, at least for three minutes and seventeen seconds, we are all ‘from Minnesota.’
After a couple of perfunctory genre exercises (the calypso-inspired “Still Not Dead” and the rockabilly-tinged “(Baby, You’re The Reason For All My Crazy Runnin’) Around,” part one ends with the most personal writing from Dylan since “Blood On The Tracks.” Bob Dylan has always expressed ambivalence about being ‘the voice of a generation,’ and nowhere is this conflict more apparent than on the moody, zither-driven anthem “The World Is Screwed And I’ve Stopped Caring.”
At almost twelve minutes, “The World Is Screwed And I’ve Stopped Caring” is a cryptic ode, full of opaque references to “the world being screwed” and Dylan himself “not caring.” Always a challenge to decipher, here Dylan presents an almost impressionistic lyric which can be interpreted in many ways.
We don’t ultimately know if it’s the folkie Dylan, the electric Dylan, the born-again Dylan or the romantic Dylan who is speaking to us, or is it an overlap of all of those Dylans in some sort of rock and roll Venn diagram? The song’s lyrics give us few clues, but he seems to be repudiating the notion of rock stars as prophets when he wails the lines “I repudiate the notion of rock stars as prophets/I can’t make it any clearer than that”.
After he became a Muslim, Bob Dylan famously said “God wears a lot of different suits, man, depending on where he has to go that day.” In this, his 47th album, it is Dylan who changes his wardrobe, and not all of the suits fit. Even Dylan fanatics won’t need an entire disc of sound checks, although “Test: One Two” is interesting. And the spoken word piece “Brownsville Girl Parts Two, Three And Four” is a bit self-indulgent. But after a fifteen year absence from the studio (claiming that “the magnets they’re using steal your soul”), “The Bootleg Series Vol. 12” is a stunning return to form from a man battling his demons, and ours, at times with just a harmonica.