Smoke and Mirrors: On Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

Mr. Zimmerman rung in his 80th year with a cinematic journey through his past

Bob Dylan / Shadow Kingdom (Art: Ron Hart)

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The event was called Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, like it was a college course where students might debate subjects along the lines of “Dylan’s Use of Weather Metaphor” or “Ships and Boats: Dylan and Means of Transportation.”

I would imagine that no one who paid to witness the Bob Dylan stream when it made its debut this past weekend could have predicted what Dylan would be up to, even with the short teasers that went out in advance. What might “Early Songs” even mean? A program of pre-electric-Dylan songs? Dylan, guitar and harmonica, dusting off “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Nothing in Dylan World turns out the way it originally seems, but all that the clues pointed to was a lack of repertoire from Rough and Rowdy Days, or even Tempest, and probably no standards, although who could be certain? Maybe he considered “Autumn Leaves” an “early song.” 

Now, days later, anyone interested in what Dylan might be up to knows that Shadow Kingdom has a loose definition of what makes a song early, and that Dylan is still a master of misdirection. Is it a “concert film”? Strictly, no. The songs are performed (or mimed) by a band at a venue, and are strung together in a concert-like sequence, set in a smoke-filled club (or a soundstage tricked out like a club), shot in black and white, but there are outfit changes, and each song has a slightly different atmosphere. It plays out like a dream, and in fact, midway through, I texted a friend and said, “I think I dreamt this live Dylan show once.” Each song was introduced by a printed title card (sometimes inaccurately, because naturally), and as each one popped up, I thought, is he kidding? 

For a Dylanphile, it was mind-scrambling. I did not expect a radically altered (lyrically and musically) “To Be Alone With You” (a Nashville Skyline deep cut), or “Queen Jane Approximately,” or “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” Or a time-suspending “What Was It You Wanted” (apparently 1989’s Oh Mercy is now early Dylan: it was more than thirty years ago, so why not?). Dylan concerts I’ve seen as recently as 2019 have been riveting, among his best ever I’d reckon, but there was a fixed structure to them: this was like he just tore up that set list and started from scratch.

Shadow Kingdom promotional poster (Image: Google)

It’s a primarily acoustic set-up, no drummer, and the songs have been deconstructed; the closest thing to Shadow Kingdom is the way Dylan songs are re-purposed and re-arranged for the Broadway musical Girl from the North Country, which is scheduled to reopen after a pandemic hiatus. Recent reporting tells us that the members of the masked band in the show are not the musicians we hear on the soundtrack, but can anyone really be surprised by that revelation, after the mash-up of fact and fiction that was the recent Scorsese Rolling Thunder film? It’s a trick, but what matters is that Dylan’s singing is exceptionally strong, and that even when playing early songs –“Tombstone Blues,” say – he unravels them, meditates on them, revises them. What other artist can get away with this, taking our memories of songs we’ve heard hundreds of times, giving us a chance to experience them as new? I never cared that much for “Forever Young”: its sentimentality felt rote. But it moved me in Shadow Kingdom, maybe because Dylan is 80 now, not the 33 year-old he was when he recorded it, and there’s a grandfatherly tone to it, like “More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls.

Even if it was shot out of sequence, Shadow Kingdom has an arc. It starts with a statement of purpose, “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and ends, abruptly and way too soon, with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” That song closed out Bringing It All Back Home, his breakaway album from what anywhere else would be called his early years, and it’s the song he said farewell to the Newport Folk Festival audience with in 1965, after he shocked a good segment of the crowd with his electric band. And with that, another title card comes up, the final one: Shadow Kingdom. Some followers on the internet thought it was the name of a new song he was about to introduce – the show was only 50 minutes in, and viewers were anticipating more – but no.

With “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was over and, like the fans who gathered at Newport in 1965, we could only scratch our heads and wonder where he was going next. As though anyone has ever been able to predict that.


VIDEO: Bob Dylan Shadow Kingdom trailer


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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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