Bob Dylan is a good singer

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Bob Dylan, thinking about stuff Columbia Records

People who only want to hear beautiful voices are like people who only want to fuck underwear models.

Both groups share a limited sense of what makes humans attractive. Or interesting. Or human. They exalt the ideal and snub the idiosyncratic, leaving those of us who’ll take our art and sex where we can get it to have all the fun. Bob Dylan, he’s our guy.

Not Dylan the genius or the poet or whatever other epithet commonly obscures his actual achievements. Before anything else, Dylan was a sound, a clogged-sinus yowl pouncing on unsuspecting syllables with graceless accuracy, an invitation to open your mouth and hear what came out. His leveling of the vocal playing field was far more revolutionary than his elevation of the rock lyric to art, but some still say Dylan’s an “effective” singer, a “powerful” one, any euphemism that sidesteps “good” in deference to the outdated assumption that good singing is pretty.

Triplicate is Dylan’s third collection of pre-rock pop standards, and his longest: thirty songs, spread between three discs, if you insist on purchasing a commodity that transcends the virtual realm. It has the unmistakable shape of a grand statement, but there’s nothing imposing or monumental about it. If Dylan is making any kind of official declaration here (aside from the same one he makes in nearly every interview, that he flat-out loves old songs), it’s one he shouldn’t and doesn’t have to after more than a half-century of recording: The sounds he makes with his mouth are not accidents.

As on its predecessors, the clinkers here (he has a few) are placed as cannily as Thelonious Monk’s. That’s an imperfect comparison -- Monk could play whatever he wanted, Dylan’s physical limitations shape his artistic choices. So imagine Monk sometimes favoring the half-dozen, half-dead keys of a battered barroom piano, sometimes trickily playing around them. Often Dylan sidles gingerly toward his upper register as though edging nearer a skittish crush on a love seat, launching out a smidgen flat, maybe, only to glide upward and redeem what had seemed a flub, then hoarsely broadening his delivery till his full voice sprays with crackling gravel.

On his two previous albums, Dylan seemed intent on one-upping Sinatra’s '60s saloon-singer persona. Frank, for all his weary maturity, was still only middle-aged after all. Seventy-something going on infinity, Dylan was too old to love again, too weak to shelve his longing, his willed decrepitude deepening the resignation of imagining what it must be like to suffer the very last heartbreak of your life. On Triplicate though he’s moved on to acceptance, with a jaunty “The Best is yet to Come” shucking off all wintry fatalism entirely. Dylan often sounds like a man content to observe emotions he once felt, which is keeping with the detached, philosophical tone of “Stardust” and “As Time Goes By,” where his voice drifts around like second-hand smoke in lamplight.

Though Dylan’s preoccupied with the nuances of his own vocal phrasing, the groove here is a little neglected. Drummer George Receli thanklessly keeps things moving from tectonic drift to capable shuffle, and Tony Garnier plays his bass for atmosphere, contributing the rattle of your neighbors’ floorboards or the buzz of a distant foghorn. But the guitar work is restless and brilliant. The independent rambles of Dean Parks and Charlie Sexton never noodle around, and the introductory lattice they weave for “These Foolish Things” is gorgeous. Donnie Harron’s pedal steel helps smudge the distinction between country-folk and urban-pop traditions. At times you wouldn’t even notice that these are songs Bob Dylan isn’t supposed to sing.

There’s something eerily private about these recordings. To choose a jarring comparison, Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” series attempted to reconnect pre-rock songs with an audience broad enough to be uncool, to resurrect distant oldies as living pop songs. Dylan’s collections are hushed and overheard, less like a guided museum tour than like being abandoned by a reclusive host to survey his home collection. But there’s a democratic audacity to these albums, an assertion that pop standards, like folk songs, belong to us all, a cultural heritage open to whoever’s capable of claiming it with wit and guile. And it takes some kind of singer to pull off a feat like that.


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