Putting together a cohesive, flowing covers album has always been no small feat – even more so in the age of streaming and playlists – but it can be done. Proof of this has recently been provided by Bob Dylan, who spent the mid-to-late 2010s releasing a series of Great American Songbook cover albums that, once he had finished with them, sounded like he could have written them himself. Now, Nashville-based singer songwriter Emma Swift has taken on a similar challenge with eight of Dylan’s own songs, for her new album Blonde on the Tracks.
The title references two of Dylan’s most famous records, 1966’s Blonde On Blonde and 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, but it’s the spirit of the latter album that comes through the strongest. Like Blood on the Tracks, Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks seems to be a snapshot of the end of a relationship. Also like Blood on the Tracks, there is sense that the story is being told out of sequence, with past, present and future melding into one.
The opening song, “Queen Jane Approximately,” sounds like more of a goodbye than a hello. Dylan’s original has a distinct “You’ll come crawling back eventually” vibe about it, but when in Swift’s version the narrator sings lines like “When all the clowns that you have commissioned/Have died in battle or in vain/And you’re sick of all this repetition/Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane,” you get the feeling that she’s listing things that she knows won’t be happening any time soon. Queen Jane isn’t coming back.
Track two, “I Contain Multitudes”, is the most recent cover on the disc, having been released as a single just over a month after Dylan premiered the song this past April. Whereas Bob’s version is more of a wistful reflection, Swift’s take on the song sounds more like a declaration of self-worth, and there’s a darkness to this track that isn’t present in the original. A menacing synthesizer drifts onto the track about halfway through, before being carried away by the delicate guitars.
“One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” transports us to another point in the story. The verses find the narrator looking back on the relationship with sadness (“I didn’t mean to treat you so bad….”), only to launch into the chorus with a sense of unbridled joy and relief. There’s such a glorious sense of freedom on this track that one can’t help but be reminded of a classic Dylan song that doesn’t feature on this album, and the lines “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.”
Track four, “Simple Twist of Fate”, perfectly captures the terrible realization that a relationship may be broken beyond repair; even as the narrative moves around to different points in time, the song remains rooted in that one moment. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” meanwhile, seems to take place in an earlier, happier time, as the narrator sings the praises of the mysterious “Sad Eyed Lady.”
Is “The Man In Me” sung from the perspective of another character in the story? Maybe, maybe not. Another quality that Blonde on the Tracks shares with many of Dylan’s classic albums is the sense that the role of narrator shifts between a number of different voices. “Going Going Gone” finds our protagonist – whoever it may be – at their lowest ebb, while “You’re A Big Girl Now” sounds like it takes place sometime later, with the singer looking back on the relationship and wondering what might have been. Is it over? The album leaves us to decide for ourselves.
Blonde on the Tracks is an engrossing, deftly produced LP that that goes far beyond the boundaries of a straightforward tribute album. The songs may not be new, but – thanks these inspired reinterpretations of Bob Dylan’s words and music by Emma Swift – they certainly sound like they are.
Read more about Emma Swift in our original story on her “I Contain Multitudes” cover.