Artists can cover songs in a couple different ways: either stay faithful to the original, or make dramatic changes and try to come at the song from a totally new angle. The “I’m Not There” soundtrack offers a nice mix of both, with some of today’s best artists taking on Bob Dylan’s legendary catalogue.
Coming in at 34 songs on two discs, “I’m Not There” covers a wide range of Dylan’s works, from the well-known hits to unreleased masterpieces. Contributing artists range from big names like Willie Nelson and Eddie Vedder to stars of the indie scene like Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, and the diversity from track to track help keeps the album enjoyable.
Some highlights include The Hold Steady’s light-hearted take on “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and Jim James and Calexico’s channeling of Dylan and The Band on “Goin’ to Acapulco.”
Stephen Malkmus sings on three tracks, with excellent delivery on all of them. On one track, Malkmus teams up with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo for a beautiful version of Dylan’s unfinished “Can’t Leave Her Behind.” At just over a minute, the song builds from a ghostly instrumental before fading out with “I don’t wanna try / I’ve tried, also cried / But I can’t leave her behind.”
The soundtrack’s disappointments are few and far between, but a couple tracks don’t live up to their potential. Sufjan Stevens’s version of “Ring Them Bells” is overly ambitious and almost unrecognizable. Although it lasts less than four and a half minutes, the track feels way too long, and doesn’t end until after a preposterous series of false-ending codas. Cat Power’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and Eddie Vedder’s “All Along the Watchtower” are unremarkable and mostly uninspired. As great a song as “All Along the Watchtower” is, it would be nice to hear an original interpretation once in a while instead of a slightly-updated version of Jimi Hendrix’s revolutionary rewrite.
A couple missteps are forgivable on an album with this many songs, and for the most part the artists here do the material justice. Long-time Dylan fans will find a lot to like on the soundtrack, while uninitiated listeners will get a nice cross-section of each of Dylan’s different phases.
Certainly “I’m Not There” is no “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blonde on Blonde,” but it is an awfully good collection of covers. While a lot of tribute albums are superfluous in the face of the original material, “I’m Not There” compliments Dylan’s work nicely.