Bob Dylan’s Book of Love: Thirty Standards That Map a World Sweeter Than We Will Ever Know


Bob Dylan walks through the landscape of love. This three-disc set is his third (or third, fourth, and fifth) consecutive album of standards mostly associated with Frank Sinatra, but Triplicate doesn’t have the curated feel of Shadows in the Night, from 2015, or Fallen Angels, from last year — by comparison they seem hesitant, partial, chapters in a book that doesn’t need to be finished.

This is the book, and it does feel finished. When you reach the end of its thirty songs, from the 1929 “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” — recorded by Fred Astaire, then by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Julie London — to “Why Was I Born?” from the same year — recorded by Billie Holiday in 1937 and Sinatra in 1947 — there’s the feeling of having been somewhere, of having been there: the country made by these songs. “Stormy Weather.” “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me.” “As Time Goes By.” “The Best Is Yet to Come.” “It Gets Lonely Early.” “When the World Was Young.” “I Could Have Told You.” “Once Upon a Time.” “It makes me so sad,” said a friend, hearing the album for the first time. “It makes me think of all the people who are gone who loved these songs, every one of them.”

That isn’t a feeling the album insists on or even calls for. It’s not elegiac, regretful, rueful, nostalgic, a gaze into the past where, as “Once Upon a Time” goes, “the world was sweeter than we knew.” That might read as an elegiac, regretful, rueful, nostalgic look over the shoulder — we didn’t know those were the best days of our lives, we didn’t know that they would never come again. As those words come out of the song here, they don’t have to mean anything, but if they do, they might communicate something much harder: that the world itself is sweeter than we will ever know, that knowledge will always escape us, that there is no locating oneself in any single place or time. Life sweeps everything away, and you depart without knowing more than when you arrived.

That was the sense when Dylan sang “Once Upon a Time” for the Tony Bennett ninetieth birthday tribute The Best Is Yet to Come on NBC last December — a show-stopping performance that seemed to search for all the directions a song that begins “once upon a time” could take, including those followed in his own song that opens with the same words.

The words don’t have to mean anything because it’s the sense of an atmosphere to breathe, to be changed by, that you hear. The signposts of the songs, “The fundamental things apply,” “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,” “Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky,” don’t necessarily register, worn down by the hundreds of singers who’ve recorded them — from 1927, when Hoagy Carmichael first cut his own “Stardust” for the Gennett label in Richmond, Indiana, a small jazz and blues company that featured Charley Patton, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, to 1965, with Sinatra rolling out “The September of My Years” on his own Reprise label in Burbank, California. What you hear is much lighter than any carefully crafted catchphrase — instead you hear a certain person, the fictional character who inhabits Bob Dylan’s voice in these renditions, lighting down on a song, then moving on to the next one, and so modestly that when you finish listening to the third disc and go back to the first, the feeling is that that character, too, has come back to the first song on the first disc for another go-round — and much deeper.

“P.S. I Love You” — not the Beatles song, in which, Jonathan Cott once wrote, “P.S.” probably referred to Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, but a tune written in 1934 and a hit for Rudy Vallée, done better by Bing Crosby, with words by Johnny Mercer, music by Gordon Jenkins, who in 1959 arranged Sinatra’s indelible No One Cares — doesn’t even remotely suggest that it’s a great song. The bends in the melody are so cheesy people in the Thirties probably thought they’d heard it before. “P.S. I love you” is supposed to catch your ear, elicit a response — How clever to use that phrase in a song! — and make you smile, but it seems like it came into the song as an antique. Yet as Dylan sings it, it feels like a great song, or a great occasion for a great song. Again, it’s that sense of the song not as a specific combination of words and music, but as a place where words are music.

Dylan meanders through the song. There is no destination: He flattens everything in the melody that suggests purpose, intent, desire, even meaning. There’s no need to stake a claim, or even carve your initials into a tree. The trees in this song don’t need you. They were here before you came upon them and they’ll be here when you’re gone, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them: You owe them nothing. The singer in this song owes nothing to its images of domestic loneliness — in bed by nine, a burn on the table, each day seems like a year. He owes something, perhaps, to the few notes of the cello and guitar counterpoint that open his version, because they wave him goodbye as he sets out. What you hear is someone exploring the shifts in the melody as if they’re hills, resting places, passageways that you never noticed the last time you were here, exploring the notion that any walk down the same street, across the same field, can show you something you never saw before.

Compared to Dylan’s own songs, the songs on Triplicate are tight, constrained, most of all orderly. They don’t have the expanse, let alone the fabulism, of the ballads that lie behind the Dylan songs that seem like epics, from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in 1963 to “Scarlet Town” in 2012. Except perhaps for “Stardust,” which can seem less composed than found, they aren’t, in the best sense, folk songs — and yet in a certain sense they are. The omission of any writers’ credits anywhere on Triplicate — on back of the package, on the discs, in the liner booklet — can let the songs communicate as if they actually don’t have authors, as common coin that is also common property, as if they are landscape, atmosphere — and isn’t that what a song, not its composer, not its singer, but the song itself, really wants? To be the air that you breathe?

“He has such a nice voice,” said the same friend. You don’t hear that said. The conventional word for Bob Dylan’s voice, today, is ravaged. Certainly he doesn’t have the clean tone of other older singers: Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett. What he does have, in the tears and breaks in his voice, is the ability to converse with the songs he sings, especially these songs, each of them carrying so many other singers. And that’s also to say that with any given number he now might be discussing it with Holiday, Ethel Waters, Crosby, London, Sinatra, Bennett, Patti Page, Chet Baker, Astaire, Perry Como, Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, Dorothy Lamour, and countless more — and all those who will sing these songs after him.

Listening to these three discs, these thirty songs, opening and closing and opening this book, I found myself thinking not of any other Bob Dylan album, but of the Theme Time Radio Hour shows he hosted on Sirius XM between 2006 and 2009, and not only for the old songs he played. In the way Dylan reaches for high notes he can’t rise to, or goes flat before letting a hidden theme in the melody rescue him and bring him back into the song, as with “Stardust,” the real analogue is Dylan’s flinty, cracker-barrel commentary in those shows: a sense of having lived with any song he’s playing, listening to it over time as if it were a person, and not telling half of what he knows. Whether the theme was “Lock and Key” or “Birds” or “More Birds,” there was, each time, that sense of a territory, a country of songs, a place to visit. For this show — for this album — if it’s the landscape of love, Dylan may be crossing it in muddy boots, leaving tracks for others to erase or follow.

The steel guitar playing is kind of boring.