Inside the Music of Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

On this brilliant soundtrack, the Bard broadcasts on Radio Right Now 

Shadow Kingdom film poster (Image: Idmb)

Bob Dylan will not allow his past to be his reference point, nor yours.

He will not permit the easy use of his music as a mnemonic for your best and worst times, your good and bad memories. On Shadow Kingdom, a brilliant and affecting album that is the latest foray in Dylan’s ongoing mission to insist on The Now, he is ensuring that every word he sings means something real to him, in his senior present. 

True: one of the primary functions of music is it’s ability to act as a mnemonic. “Oh,” we coo, “this is the song that was playing when I had my first kiss/found out I got into Bard/heard that Lady Di died/saw the World’s Largest Thermometer in Barstow,” or whatnot. Pop often functions as a place keeper for memories (and most legacy pop artists have ceased trying to do anything else); which means, essentially, it is taken out of the Now and resigned to Nostalgia. Bob Dylan – on Shadow Kingdom and in his extraordinary live performances for most of this century – is having none of that. In doing so, he is engaging in a late-in-life miracle, as so very, very few artists have. Dylan is actively committed to performing and releasing music that is creatively thrilling and emotionally relevant.  

Shadow Kingdom is not a live album – that’s neither technically or conceptually accurate – and it’s clumsy to describe this as “simply” re-recordings of archival material. Dylan calls it a Soundtrack (to the strange, graceful, feather and wire brushed cabaret-noir of Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, Alma Ha’rel’s performance film shot in 2021), but let’s take this word at its most literal meaning: Shadow Kingdom soundtracks our life. The old recordings tell us where and who we once were, and these new recordings tell us where and who we are now. Put it this way: the word “mama” means very different things coming from the mouth and mind of someone who is 4, 14, 24, 44 and 64. On Shadow Kingdom, Dylan is insisting on arrangements and performances that highlight the contemporary, as opposed to nostalgic, meanings of his text. 

Bob Dylan Shadow Kingdom, Columbia/Legacy 2023

Let’s take a wee step back. For the last few decades, Dylan’s live band (billed always as “His Band,” as in Bob Dylan and His Band) are, simply put, one of the greatest, most powerful and most effective live rock ‘n’ roll bands I have ever seen. I have been levitated, transformed, and elated by his 21st century performances as I have been by very, very few artists. Many Dylan fans may have wanted a live recording of that extraordinary band. But that’s not what Shadow Kingdom is, not remotely (in fact, it doesn’t even feature any players from his recent live bands). I believe this is very intentional (Dylan does not play dice; it’s not so much that there is meaning in everything he does, rather than everything he does pretty much means exactly what it appears to mean): Dylan is insisting that the visceral power of His Band and their breathtaking Frenchman Street-via-South Texas-via-Greaser Garage Band live performances are objects of now-ness and singular event experience (and/or thumpy, echoey audience tapes). This means that these incredible shows become something we experience(d) in the moment, much as Dylan experienced Eddie Cochran or Buddy Holly when he saw them in the ballrooms of Minnesota in the late 1950s. Again and again, Dylan creates Now-ness, not souvenirs. It is the most consistent factor in his work, for over 60 years: I will not stand still, I will revise, revive, make myself laugh, find new angles and perspectives on old songs, discover that things that once made me smile now make me cry, things that once made me feel clever now make me feel sad. 

Shadow Kingdom insists on now-ness via revisions that demand attention via their space, their emptiness, their joy, their beauty, and an intensity that almost shakes with simple love. These arrangements scream, even when whispered, “LISTEN CLOSELY.” Shadow Kingdom is performed with the plaintive, emotional, moving brushes (and sometimes the loose, breathy, and minimal high desert boogie) with which Dylan sketched the material on Rough and Rowdy Ways; and now he applies this texture to his catalog. These whispers, casual and intense and sometimes roaring with space and silence, alert us, arrest us, seduce us, make us listen; regardless of our familiarity with this material, these arrangements adamantly prevent us from using these recordings as a mnemonic. Instead, we must use them as a reference point for where we are now. By insisting that these songs no longer be vessels for nostalgia, Dylan has done something remarkable: He is using these songs to say something about who he is in his ninth decade, and he is inviting us to hear and feel what they have to say about our lives as we age. 

Listen, friends, nostalgia–including the nostalgia of wanting a mnemonic to remain as it always was regardless of the shifting object of recall–is a lie: We use it to reassure ourselves that at any given moment, we can sidestep reality and use a song (or a television show, or a high school yearbook, or any landmark or object) to retreat into the safe and faulty lands of memory. The easy narcotic of the mnemonic allows us to sidestep recognition of who we are and where we are now, and what insight or action that might require. Nostalgia demands that things remain recognizable, because only then can the mnemonic achieve maximum effect. But Dylan insists: Revising theses performance shocks us into recognizing who we are now, instead of allowing us to retreat into the comfort of then-ness. And this makes total sense, in Dylan-world (and elsewhere). Again and again for nearly sixty years, Dylan has been continually fighting for us to see him in the present. Working against our traditional relationship with superstar pop, he wants us to see him through his (and our) current age/neuroses/experience, and not through the past mnemonic function of nearly all superstar pop. Arguably ever since he “went electric” at Newport, he refuses to allow his performances and songs to be place keepers for past experiences (when he went electric, he wasn’t seeking to shock, but trying to say “LISTEN”). And with Shadow Kingdom Dylan is insisting, again, that when we hear “old” songs, instead of applying them to archival memories, instead of allowing them to trigger nostalgia, we must listen, LISTEN, listen, and apply these words to NOW. The king of simile and metaphor refuses to allow his music to be a simile or metaphor; instead, it is, it must, be applied to the immediate. 

I love all of Shadow Kingdom dearly (in my estimation, it’s the fourth indispensable album Dylan has released in the last 10 years – the others being Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2016’s Fallen Angels, and the third disc of 2017’s Triplicate). Here are some specifics. 

The phenomenal rendering of “Tombstone Blues” is an example of what Shadow Kingdom does so very, very goddamn well: It is barely there. “Tombstone Blues” takes the form of an operatic recitative, or even a sung Torah verse; it’s just a hint of melody hanging on text (he used this technique often on Rough and Rowdy Ways, but perhaps never as effectively, as dramatically as he does here). On “Tombstone Blues” Dylan uses silences the way some people use guitar solos, or some writers use paragraphing. It’s one of Dylan’s best-ever vocal performances, it’s all ellipses, loaded pauses, epitaphs, demands for respect and attention from someone who may be unable or unwilling to raise their voice. Dylan takes a similar approach on “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”: Imagine an essentially isolated vocal with just the barest, seemingly improvised sketch of instruments following his lyric and subtle, emotive croon. It is profoundly effective and affecting. “What Was It You Wanted” is bittersweet and ringing with T-Bone Burnett’s feather-light jangle; like so many of Shadow Kingdom’s songs, it feels like a fresh reliquary about rosy and dusky shadows at the end of life, addressed without bitterness or even regret, but with a hope for the idea that sense can finally be made of the past.  And “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” removes the song from its’ original southwestern / melancholic setting, and adds a sense of urgency, in fact near-panic, implying two things: Time is no longer on our side, and we must make hay while hay is still to be made.


VIDEO: Bob Dylan “Forever Young”

The absolute jaw droppers on Shadow Kingdom are “Queen Jane Approximately” – sung with an almost elder-angel sweetness, and a resolute desperation – and a stately, elegiac take on “Forever Young” that won’t leave a freaking dry eye in the room (literally; you are warned). Again, the message here is, “Finally, we can make some sense of these things we said a lifetime ago, we can finally understand the poetry of the past.” Without reservation, I say this: The Shadow Kingdom versions of “Forever Young,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Tombstone Blues,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” belong on every an any Dylan greatest hits mixtape and/or playlist. 

Some artists go in circles, and repeat the past, which is something Dylan never does; some artists go in circles, and demand eternal youth; Dylan certainly doesn’t do that, in fact he combats that. Bob Dylan has zero interest in music as mnemonic, Bob Dylan wants to broadcast on Radio Right Now. And he wants us to ask ourselves, what these songs, revised in a way that compels you to actually listen, tell us about who and where we are now? That is the lesson of his eternal revision, his constant rebirth.

As the Buddha said, you cannot put your hand in the same river twice: Each time you touch the skin of the water, it has moved on, it is a new river. 



Tim Sommer

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYU DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

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