Artist: Emma Swift
Album: Blonde On The Tracks
Label: Tiny Ghost Records
The stars were aligned when Emma Swift’s Bob Dylan covers project neared fruition. The project was begun shortly after Dylan had released his own covers album, Triplicate – yet another batch of Great American Songs, which even the most zealous of his aficionados were growing tired of hearing him interpret. But with most of Swift’s Dylan covers in the can, the Man Himself astonished the world with the release of his long elegy for JFK (and a certain idea of America), ‘Murder Most Foul’, followed by two more songs and then an album of original material, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The Dylan-appreciating part of the lockdowned world awoke from its slumber, providing an alert, receptive audience for Swift’s beautiful – and wonderfully titled – Blonde on the Tracks.
Swift has joked that the album’s inclusion of one of the longest songs in Dylan’s extensive repertoire, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, proves just how poor her commercial instincts are. But this was always an existential rather than a commercial project. Never a prolific songwriter, Swift was going through a particularly fallow time creatively (put plainly, she was depressed) when the project came to her as a possible means of escape. Given the project’s authenticity, it is heartening that the album has in fact sold well in the first few weeks since its release – and especially heartening that Swift is reaching a wide audience without recourse to the music streaming services that are so exploitative of musicians.
Joan Baez changed ‘Mama’ to ‘Daddy’ when singing that great, plaintive track ‘Mama You Been on My Mind’, but mercifully Swift doesn’t re-gender anything here. One could be over-clever, in a post-modern sort of way, in interpreting the hell out of the fact that it’s a woman and not a man singing ‘Why don’t you come see me, Queen Jane?’, but considering that Dylan once asserted – truthfully or mischievously – that Queen Jane was actually a man, where’s the sense? Swift sings the words that Dylan wrote.
It isn’t always so simple, however. Clearly, Swift’s inclusion of ‘The Man in Me’ wasn’t a gender-blind choice. And in this case, the shift in meaning does bear some critical analysis. Swift seems to be mining her inner (traditionally, masculine) quality of assertiveness, perhaps partly as a way out of the creative/career bind she found herself in. But at the start of the 70s when the song was written, Dylan was putting behind himself the early Rimbaud-like poète maudit period of his greatness, and proclaiming in simple terms his love for his wife: the contrast is between man and boy, not man and woman (just as the contrast in Just Like a Woman is between woman and girl rather than the sexes). In Dylan’s version, connecting with the ‘man in me’ is about connecting with a mature sensitivity, as opposed to the immature insensitivity of the enfant terrible.
The decision to include ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ may be perplexing to some. After all, the original isn’t only just-about perfect lyrically but also musically, so why bother? But this is surely the point: Swift is bringing the very best of her interpretive powers to the very best of Dylan. This is another of Dylan’s songs that can be criticised from a feminist perspective: isn’t it a projection of male fantasies (about Woman as Muse) onto a living, breathing woman? Dylan was attracted to Robert Graves’s theory of the White Goddess as the source of poetic inspiration, after all. But in the song’s lyric, the mythical and the personal are interwoven so well that we feel both the awe of Dylan’s adoration of Woman and his connection with this real woman, who was Sara Lownds (just a ‘la’ short of ‘lowlands’) when they met. It’s a real woman, not a goddess, who lives and breathes in such lines as:
With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row,
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go
(Sara’s husband before Dylan, Hans Lownds, was a magazine photographer.) By the time that the Dylans’ marriage was failing, the mythical and the personal had separated like oil and water in the song ‘Sara’, with verses chock-full of rarely glimpsed details of their life, such as ‘when the children were babies and played on the beach’, and choruses sprinkled with less convincing tropes of goddess-worship (‘radiant jewel’, etc.). Swift’s version of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is less personally interpretable than Dylan’s: it both is, and pays homage to, the thing it is, swirling repetitively, rising and falling with the peaks and lesser peaks of love.
But all that aside, what the hell went on at the farm Dylan sings about here and on ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’? ‘They wish you’d accepted the blame for the farm’; ‘you told me later, as I apologised, / That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm’. Is this the kind of farm with animals on it, or by ‘farm’ does Dylan really mean Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory? Or what? Something is happening here, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s a very cool mid-60s scene, with beautiful, fragile people crossing the young Bob Dylan’s path and being extended sympathy or else torn verbally to pieces, and sometimes both. How well do these songs that hoarsely catalogue the excesses of a vanished society survive in today’s world, perfectly enunciated by an Australian child of the 80s? Pretty well, all told.
While the original ‘One of Us Must Know’ is constantly teetering on the edge of breakdown, barely held together by a stumbling rhythm section, its musical edginess fitting the sentiment superbly, Swift’s version feels coolly detached by comparison – a song of regret viewed through the telescopic lens of time, rather than through the distorted mirror of the moment just past. The song was one of Dylan’s own favourites, and rightly so. It falls halfway between the sneering satire of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and the warm sympathy of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, with lines that are simple but strangely affecting: ‘I couldn’t see / When it started snowin’ / Your voice was all that I heard.’ Swift’s delivery is impeccable, and though her musical heroes and influencers include Karen Dalton, Sandy Denny, Marianne Faithful and Dusty Springfield, there is a touch of (dare I say it?) Kylie Minogue’s catchy pop sensibility in her rendition of the song’s chorus.
The album’s opener, ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, sounds like an in-tune cover of a non-existent cover of the song by The Byrds. It is a clear highlight, but not more so than the next track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ – recorded in Swift’s home when the original was but a babe, freshly delivered in the startled aftermath of ‘Murder Most Foul’. It is perhaps patronising to value any of these versions chiefly for their sending the listener back to Dylan’s original with renewed enthusiasm. But this take is an eye and an ear opener: the shift from major to minor (more exactly, to diminished seventh) is more pronounced in Swift’s magnificent recording, and the fragmentariness of Dylan’s songwriting (apparent, I would argue, ever since his split from Sara was monumentalised for the last time in 1978’s Street Legal) is made to sound coherent by the crystal-clear coherence of Swift’s delivery. Covers of Dylan songs form a category of their own in popular music, and Swift’s version of ‘I Contain Multitudes’ ranks among the category’s very best. This puts her in illustrious company. With Nina Simone, for God’s sake.
What else is there to say? The interpretation of the minor but affecting song ‘Going, Going, Gone’ is minor but affecting. Wanting to prove my critical credentials by making at least one cutting comment here, I was going to write that ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ sounds like an afterthought, but it has grown on me too much to say so except obliquely. I only wish Swift had considered using some of the alternative lines Dylan has given this song in performance, such as ‘She should have caught me in my prime, / She would have stayed with me.’
Some of Dylan’s best recordings, in terms of musicianship, were made in Nashville. And this same excellence is on display in Blonde on the Tracks. So, a shout out to the other musicians on Swift’s album: her partner, the brilliant Robyn Hitchcock; Patrick Sansone; Jon Estes; Thayer Serrano; and Jon Radford.
I am conscious that this review of an album by a contemporary woman artist speaks inordinately about the man whose work inspired it. But then, I am one of those Dylan aficionados who whooped it up when an album of new material replaced the expected next instalment from the Great American Songbook. Swift’s album begins, lyrically, with an unsympathetic mother sending back invitations, and ends with a ‘big girl’ who is now able to ‘make it through’: and that’s the arc of the story here.
What I’m now looking forward to most isn’t Dylan’s next album (I have my doubts that there will be one, or at least one to better Rough and Rowdy Ways) but an album of original material by Emma Swift.
Blonde on the Tracks by Emma Swift was released in August, 2020, through Bandcamp.