28 April 2010

Your Weekly Dylan Cover (#2)

Sufjan Stevens
"Ring Them Bells"
Original Dylan version found on Oh Mercy (1989)

[Ed. note: Regular readers of this blog know that Bob Dylan is affectionately referred to as the "Patron Saint" of TNOP. This weekly feature sifts through the thousands of cover versions of Dylan songs and provides you with our favorites, as well as a quick memory of our first exposure to the Dylan original.]

Sufjan Stevens is a native Michigander who has been a prolific singer-songwriter over the past ten years. A multi-instrumentalist, Stevens' unique voice on the music scene has drawn both heavy critical praise as well as a few accusations of pretentious navel gazing.

Regardless of personal opinion, there is to be no argument that Stevens makes selected songs of other artists he admires (Joni Mitchell, Daniel Johnston and Lennon/McCartney, for example) his "own," rearranging melody and sometimes adding new verses. This Dylan cover is no less different.

When one considers the whole of Stevens' career to date, his selection of Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" for inclusion in the I'm Not There soundtrack makes perfect sense. The themes of faith and justice weave themselves through Stevens' albums, but in a subtle way. As he told The Village Voice in 2005, "I don't think music media is the real forum for theological discussions. I think I've said things and sung about things that probably weren't appropriate for this kind of forum. And I just feel like it's not my work or my place to be making claims and statements, because I often think it's misunderstood."

Like many a Dylan fan(atic) back in 1989, the pending release of a new album from my favorite artist was a reason for cautious excitement. While Down In The Groove and Knocked Out Loaded were bitter disappointments, and the much-ballyhooed tours with Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead mostly hype, word was leaking out that a "return to form" was surely on the horizon. First, the previous fall George Harrison - who had recently worked with his long-time pal in The Travelling Wilburys - had enthused to a reporter about a cache of songs Dylan supposedly was holding close to the vest. Within a few months, the same story had surfaced, this time linking U2's Bono to the chorus of encouragement.

But Dylan supposedly was down about the method in which his more recent albums had been recorded. Enter Daniel Lanois, the then 38 year old Canadian musician and producer who was surely on a hot streak. In succession, he had been at the helm of Peter Gabriel's So, U2's The Joshua Tree, Robbie Robertson's self-titled solo effort and was about to enter the studio to record another album which would be lauded, Yellow Moon by The Neville Brothers. Given Lanois' involvement with Bono and Robertson, it was easy for Dylanophiles to connect the dots.

Dylan talks at length about the recording process and the great vibe of New Orleans, where Oh Mercy would be recorded, in his book Chronicles, Volume One. It makes for great reading.

Personally, I was excited about the album as a whole when it was released in September 1989, particularly the sequencing of the ten tracks. But "Ring Them Bells" stood out for its musical simplicity as well as lyrical complexity. Aside from the background sonic accents from (I think) Lanois' omnichord, it is just Dylan sitting at the piano alone, singing this compelling, plaintive narrative about age-old, wearying challenges that all walks of life confront and the accompanying faith that may in fact keep a "world on its side" from tipping completely over.

It is vintage Dylan with juxtaposition of "right and wrong" on one side of the scale and "the shepherd and his lost sheep" on the other. While all of his literary tricks seem to be in play here, I remain convinced that Dylan has not cavalierly named three saintly presences simply as a ruse. St. Peter (a disciple who publicly sinned three times and then would lead a movement dedicated to a nonviolent revolutionary), Martha (the wife of Lazarus and sister of Mary, who anointed Jesus' body) and St. Catherine (a highly learned woman who was brutally murdered for espousing and practicing her beliefs) are all symbols of humility and the virtue of the underdog.

But serious contemplation aside, the memory that sticks most permanently with me about "Ring Them Bells" is that this song could have been nestled quite comfortably within the tracks of New Morning (1970). While Oh Mercy seemed to mark a new, fruitful chapter in Dylan's career, I kept thinking of the photo on the back of that particular album. It seemed like in the best of all worlds, blues singer Victoria Spivey would be playing the gospel piano, harmonizing on the chorus while Dylan cut this song in one, live take.

Maybe he was thinking of her when he wrote it.

Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "Ring Them Bells"

Another Cover Version: Ron Sexsmith (with Elvis Costello & Sheryl Crow), "Ring Them Bells" (2009)

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