Australian-born country singer-songwriter Emma Swift’s Blonde On The Tracks is a collection of covers of some of her favourite Bob Dylan songs and it’s perfectly timed.
Bob is back with his best album in years, the masterful Rough and Rowdy Ways, which came out during lockdown, so there’s an appetite for all things Dylan. Swift even reinterprets one of the songs from his latest record on hers – the reflective and stately ballad ‘I Contain Multitudes’.
Like Dylan’s original, it’s stripped-down and intimate – Swift’s achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation, including what sounds like a harmonium.
The eight-track album opens with ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover. There’s a great, chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar solo, paying homage to Roger McGuinn’s ‘60s West Coast folk-rockers who made it big by covering Dylan songs.
She slows down ‘One of Must Know (Sooner or Later)’, turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.
‘The Man In Me’, from Dylan’s 1970 album, New Morning, is shorn of its gospel influences. Instead Swift and her band actually make it sound as if it’s come from 1966’s Blonde On Blonde – there’s even more organ than on the original. That organ crops up on the closing ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’, which also has rippling piano and a yearning electric guitar solo.
Blonde On The Tracks was started at Magnetic Sound Studio in Nashville, where Swift lives. She worked with producer Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, over email to polish up the six songs that had already been recorded, but her versions of ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ were laid down in April and May this year, at home, and overdubbed via correspondence.
Sansone’s production is key – the songs have room to breathe and are intimate, warm and inviting.
The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylan fanatic – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Sarrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.
Covid-19 wasn’t the only crisis to have an effect on this record, as Swift explains: “The idea for the album came about during a long depressive phase – the kind where it’s hard to get out of bed and get dressed and present [yourself] to the world as a high-functioning human. I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively.”
She adds: “I’ve never been a prolific writer, but this period was especially wordless. Sad, listless and desperate, I began singing Bob Dylan songs as a way to have something to wake up for.”
Interestingly, Swift hasn’t altered any of Dylan’s lyrics – they’re still sung from a man’s point of view.
Swift has been influenced by female singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor.
She says: “There’s an art to interpretation – and for me – these women are the masters. I’m as indebted to them on this record as I am to Bob Dylan.”
Like her musical heroes, Swift has also proved herself to be a master of interpreting songs. Blonde On The Tracks features some of the best versions of Dylan songs you’re ever likely to hear and it’s a lovely sounding record that’s respectful, nicely arranged and very moving at times.
She has put her own stamp on the songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered Dylan, she’s remained reasonably faithful – thankfully, she hasn’t overhauled them in such a way that they’re unrecognisable.
To be fair, if you’ve ever seen Dylan in concert, particularly in the past few years, you’ll know that he’s more than capable of doing that himself.