By Chris Gavin
Ever since the landmark album The Basement Tapes—recordings made by Bob Dylan and The Band in a basement in Woodstock, NY in 1967 and 1968—were released in 1975, both Dylan fans and the rock world at large have wanted more. Lost On The River—a record composed of unreleased Dylan lyrics set to music made by modern musicians—may not be exactly what they were looking for, but it’s something, and it’s something good. The album is a collaboration between Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, under the direction of producer T Bone Burnett. Lost On The River is a bridge between past artists and the modern ones that Dylan influenced. As a whole, the record is a labor of love—a hauntingly soulful marriage between rock, folk, the blues, and country.
There is, however, an obvious drawback. The super group, which calls itself The New Basement Tapes, and the new album are the kind of projects that welcome comparison to the original Basement Tapes. It would be hard not to. Dylanologists may have their reservations about these new tracks, mostly because half of the mystique behind the 1975 collection was that it was essentially a field recording, not a professional, polished venture. Its lo-fi production became a signature element in its beauty. Lost On The River does not have the same old-school bootleg charm, but the record has other redeeming factors.
What is apparent in the album’s twenty-track deluxe edition, though, is the style each of the songs takes, depending on which artist is taking the reins. In a round-table fashion, Costello, Mumford, Goldsmith, James, and Giddens switch off, with their personal musical styles influencing each given track. “Kansas City,” a fast-paced melancholy ballad about a cheating lover, very much seems as if it could be the latest Mumford and Sons single (minus the banjo). “Liberty Street” and “Diamond Ring” have the slow and echoing draw Goldsmith’s band, Dawes, is best known for, mimicking a Jackson Browne sound. The quiet “Down On The Bottom,” led by James, is also comparable to his work with My Morning Jacket. Each musician takes a turn singing lead in different tracks, but each is also a part of every song, whether it’s through background vocals or instrumentation.
Surprisingly, there are some spots on the record that seem to be long-lost brethren of The Band, like with “Six Months In Kansas City,” a tangled, dark, and painful anthem about down on your luck. The song has deep piano octaves and swelling choruses reminiscent of Levon Helm’s soul- searching in the classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Other lyrics throughout the album, like the Costello-fronted track “Lost On The River #12,” could also seem as though they could have pled through the mouth of The Band’s bassist, Rick Danko, in one of the group’s early recordings from 1968’s Music From Big Pink. The playfulness of “Card Shark” is also reminiscent of the not-so-serious tone found on The Basement Tapes, which was known for its loose feel, especially on numbers like “Million Dollar Bash.”
Other songs, like “Spanish Mary,” “Lost On The River #20,” and “Duncan Jimmy,” stand out from the rest of the collection simply because their use of traditional chord progressions and instruments that make the tracks appealing to modern audiences. Certain tracks tend to take on a more modern-rock groove, such as “Married To My Hack,” “When I Get My Hands On You,” and “Quick Like A Flash,” all of which lend themselves to a different style than one imagined in the likes of Dylan or The Band.
As a whole, Lost On The River sits heavy with the listener. Dylan’s original lyrics are longing and aching, and when paired with the music written by The New Basement Tapes, the modern result is a thoughtful, relevant, and original take on Dylan’s incomplete work—a romanticization of his legacy.