not quite right

The job of critical writing is to shape how something is viewed, read, listened to.

That requires you to make a series of judgments, starting with ‘what is the artist/writer/musician/director after?’, followed by ‘do they have enough perspective to make good decisions?’ and ‘do they have the chops/training/heart to pull it off?’

As a corollary to that, you criticize an artist for failure to do what he or she tried to do, and not because you disagree with their goals.  You can, of course, address the goals themselves, but if you go that route you have to be modest enough to acknowledge you’re only expressing a preference, and that your preference could be wrong.

So it is with the singer Barb Jungr’s Every Grain of Sand, a quietly famous 2001 album of Dylan covers. I was reminded of it by way of Will Friedwald’s wonderful Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers, and it’s true, when you first drop the metaphorical needle, it’s a very impressive listen. I was captivated.

At the top, Jungr seemed to have solved the biggest problem, the way Dylan’s own versions define his songs and overpower most attempts to interpret them.  Jungr’s is the ‘art song’ version of Dylan, and when it works you get the sensation she is pointing, gently, back to the songs themselves, as if she’s saying ‘Look how admirable these are, how fine.’

But somewhere between the simple, superior readings of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “If Not For You” to “Every Grain Of Sand” something goes off course – I think. Maybe it’s because the opening tunes, ‘Baby’ and ‘If Not,’ aren’t great Dylan, and more, they’re not typical Dylan. There’s nothing in either tune in the way of memorable wordplay or lines, so a fine singer like Jungr has more latitude.

In fact, she’s so good that I was carried along for much of the album. But it doesn’t last: toward the end, Jungr addresses more idiosyncratic Dylan – ‘What Good Am I?’, ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ ‘Born In Time.’ I found myself very aware that she was performing the words, that I was hearing someone who was interpreting Dylan. What was an admirable distance between singer and the song became affectation, as if she knew she had to do something different.

And it didn’t help that Jungr chose to cover “Forever Young,” one of Dylan’s most sentimental tunes. Subjecting it to the art house treatment, Jungr makes too much of a case for the song, if such a thing is possible.

I think. There is another correct answer, one that suggests my reading of the album is backwards. Jungr may be at her strongest on the most ‘Dylan-like’ songs, and the self-consciousness of the project may be exactly the point. Maybe you’re not supposed to forget, even for a moment, that you’re hearing words a man wrote down, sung from a page by a much different kind of singer. (Think Bryan Ferry’s Dylanesque album.) Maybe it’s supposed to be served under glass.

Or not – the man himself is on the road many nights, performing ‘Bob Dylan’ tunes along with traditional folk and blues, rock n’ roll and pop songs from the American Century.  In his hands, there’s nothing perfect about his songs – much of the time they’re stretched to the limits of recognition. We’re lucky to have Dylan himself interpreting his songs alongside Jungr and Ferry and other Dylan obsessives, lucky because the tunes work as ‘still lifes,’ but even better as music that is still alive.

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