If your favorite ingredient of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return head soup was bands playing for extended periods of time in a club with no narrative, then boy do I have a film for you. And make no mistake, Bob Dylan’s latest endeavor Shadow Kingdom is a movie, albeit purely musical in nature. And what a film!
Bob Dylan back on guitar for a few songs creates an immediate importance to the film’s experience despite no soloing from the man who isn’t known for it (but does it a lot anyway when playing live). The lack of Tony Garnier, Dylan’s longtime bassist, and no drums at all, is jolting as well. And then there’s the oddities even a casual fan has come to expect from a Dylan project: two women stand side-by-side to the bard during “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” giving it a look and feel of some alternative Casablanca; the entire band wears pandemic-style masks, yet no one else in the filled club is adorned with any; the setting mimics a smoky 1945 bar; the project is in black-and-white with title cards to announce every song; Dylan’s vocals are likely overdubbed and maybe the music is as well, though he’s not sounded this pristine on this set of songs in decades; the focus is on music from 1989 though mostly years before.
Dylan continues to play with lyrics, which make the process startling beyond the visuals to anyone expecting a straight set of his songs. In “To Be Alone With You,” the speaker is now under the moon and a star-spangled sky where he knows his love is alive because he is too. He could very well be a murderer, though he himself isn’t even sure. In “Watching the River Flow,” he recounts a lady “who likes older men/They can’t resist her charms” and people “don’t know where to draw the line.”
The tinkering of arrangements continues Dylan’s live show tradition and won’t surprise anyone who’s seen him. These songs in this style, much like the best of Dylan shows, continue to reveal more even in a second, third, or fourth viewing. There are hints of electric guitar, used sparingly and only as accents — no distortion but nice dabs of reverb — but the electric guitar isn’t the focal point. Instead, the accordion carries most of each song’s weight. The use of acoustic guitars, particularly from Dylan’s playing when he opts for it, frames these tunes with a gentleness that juxtaposes the menace of the lyrics. The stops and starts are frequent but never sound sudden; the songs sound as fresh as the day they appeared on the original albums. “Tombstone Blues” transitions into almost a spoken word piece, shining a light on the absurdity of the world and our times. “Queen Jane Approximately” (the title card drops the adverb) hints at the Supper Club version, which will no doubt lead listeners to a possibility: will this be a Dylan album in the vein of Unplugged? A future bootleg release?
There are moving, touching, and emotional gems. “Forever Young,” the best of the bunch, is more beautiful than versions before it, of which there are plenty. It displays a tenderness and generosity, almost heartbreaking. “What Was It You Wanted,” maybe the most surprising choice for the set from the 1989 album Oh Mercy, fits the motif of the film perfectly: the addition of the chords after each verse descend to build upon the confusion of the speaker. The only song that doesn’t work as well as others is the addition of “Pledging My Time,” a standard blues-based song typical of most Dylan live shows. Here, though, it feels like filler as much as anything else, even though it hasn’t been played live a lot in recent years. It does continue the theme of love being one of the few escapes in distress. Dylan’s voice, though, is wonderful no matter the song; one would be hard pressed not to opine that it could be because he’s not being forced to growl over a set of loud drums and rock guitars; perhaps time off helps him. Moving to a band like this to close out his touring years would be a wise, if not welcomed, choice for the legend.
The movie ends with a truncated “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” whose title is also shortened. It all culminates to comment that the titular shadow of this Kingdom is not only the majestic lighting employed by director Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) but also that inner danger which we must all contain lest vile, primordial, even homicidal reactions overtake all. (It’s likely no coincidence that the piece shares a title with a book concerned with a curse spreading across a land whose Watchman stands to protect.)
The summation could also be just that the man can play a damn club and very well should, be it a Twin Peaks style roadhouse or a local dive. We’ll be there, no matter where.
Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom aired as an exclusive broadcast event via Veeps. It continues through July 20, 2021. For more information, go here.