The New Basement Tapes consists of Elvis Costello, Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Dawes’s Taylor Goldsmith, and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens. The collective’s first, and presumably last, album, Lost on the River, features production by T-Bone Burnett and music by the aforementioned five songwriters. Perhaps more importantly, all of the lyrics on the album were written by Bob Dylan in or around 1967. The original intention of these lyrics is, at best, unclear. Given when Dylan wrote the lyrics, he may have planned to set them to music so he could record them with the band that would eventually become The Band for the informal recording sessions that became The Basement Tapes. Then again, there may be a good reason Dylan himself never set these lyrics to music; these lyrics might be total throwaways. To evaluate the merit of the project, I will unpack a few questions.
1. Do we really need another record from another so-called indie supergroup?
That’s a tricky question. These records are undoubtedly fun to make, and the fun is certainly passed on to the listener. An electric energy exudes from any proceedings in which talented people get together to have fun practicing their craft. To those ends, I could listen to one of these records every day.
But these records don’t seem to hold up. Five years later, the only song I remember from Monsters of Folk—a collective that also featured Jim James—is Conor Oberst’s “Map of the World.” Three years out, the only memorable songs from Middle Brother—a collective that also featured Taylor Goldsmith—are “Daydreaming,” “Blue Eyes,” “Million Dollar Bill,” and maybe The Replacements cover “Portland” (but, come on, what indie songwriter worth his weight in uncombed hair and jean jackets can’t convincingly cover The Mats?). Artists can’t afford to devote much time to side projects, which means these records, while fun, are also very rushed. Lost on the River is no different. It’s fun. But it was also recorded in two weeks. I’m enjoying it quite a bit right now, but I don’t know if I’ll feel the same way two years from now.
2. Do we really need another record featuring previously unused lyrics by a member of the old guard set to music by members of the new guard?
Ever since Wilco and Billy Bragg set unused Woody Guthrie lyrics to music for the Mermaid Avenue records, it seems like everyone has wanted a shot at unused lyrics by “a great.” Hell, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar have both tried their hands at unused Guthrie lyrics (and as he has done consistently since Uncle Tupelo split, Tweedy won that battle). Sometimes the results are compelling, as they are on Wilco’s “California Stars” and “Remember the Mountain Bed,” but far more frequently, the results are forgettable.
Oh, and by the way, Farrar’s Guthrie album also featured Jim James. Hopefully you can see how the 1-2 punch of indie supergroup and unused lyrics by a songwriting legend starts to feel a little cheap. For god’s sake, how many of these things is Jim James gonna do?
But even if some of the players on Lost on the River are guilty of treading well-worn territory, these are Bob Dylan lyrics. He’s the preeminent 20th Century American Songwriter. And unlike similar collections featuring lyrics from Guthrie and Hank Williams, Dylan is still alive. The guy who wrote these lyrics is around to comment on the treatment of his words. The New Basement Tapes arguably faced more pressure to perform, which perhaps imbues the record with more significance. But this all leads to another question:
3. Does Dylan know he doesn’t need to worry about his legacy?
If Dylan’s final release came in 1966, he would still be the greatest 20th Century American Songwriter. Actually, we can go ahead and lose the American (sorry John Lennon, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer, etc.) and 20th Century (sorry Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Neko Case, etc.) qualifiers. If Blonde on Blonde was the last statement he ever released, Bob Dylan would still be the greatest songwriter. Period. End of sentence. But 1966 wasn’t the end of the road for Dylan. For three decades, he sprinkled hints of greatness here and there. To name a few: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Million Dollar Bash,” “Tears of Rage,” “Going to Acapulco,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” everything on Blood on the Tracks, “One More Cup of Coffee,” “Pressing On,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Brownsville Girl,” and “Most of the Time.” Then, out of nowhere, starting in 1997, he started churning out some of his all-time best material: Time Out of Mind, “Love & Theft,” Modern Times, and The Tempest.
The point is his legacy is secure. So, why is he doing things like calling up the guys in Old Crow Medicine Show with a fragment of a song he wrote in 1973, and asking them to finish it? Why is he commissioning T-Bone Burnett to produce an album featuring unused lyrics he wrote in 1967? Is Zimmy really worried about his music standing the test of time? As someone who primarily teaches 18-year-olds, I can say definitively that young folks—at least the ones who are passionate about music or art in general—still listen to Dylan. And they listen to Dylan because “Like a Rolling Stone” is a fucking great song, not because he’s handing the keys to his lyrics over to artists who, frankly, are much more likely to attract NPR listeners than young people.
4. Should these songs be more playful?
These songs are fun, but they’re never funny. One of the joys of the original basement tapes is the playfulness, the lightheartedness of the songs. Listening to those sessions today, I hear Dylan on the verge of laughing or actually laughing on several takes. In other places, I hear him trying to get a chuckle from the other musicians playing on the sessions by turning a particularly clever, or even at times raunchy, phrase. The New Basement Tapes fail to achieve that same lightheartedness. A song like “Kansas City” features all the tension and gravity of a Mumford & Sons song and none of the playfulness of a Dylan tune.
By the way, what the fuck is Johnny Depp doing there?
I might as well admit here that, at times, I really hate Mumford & Sons. Mumford has a nice voice and writes some decent tunes, but often I think Mumford & Sons is guilty of appropriating the musical, rhetorical, and sartorial choices of economically disadvantaged rural Americans in order to obtain commercial success. I find this callous at best and ethically unconscionable at worst. I also hate that their banjo player goes by Country Winston. The only country he can claim is jolly ol’ England, where his millionaire father co-founded a hedge fund that, just this year, profited handsomely from the collapse of a Portuguese bank.
Though I find much of the Mumford & Sons #brand in poor taste, I don’t wholly hate Mumford himself. I enjoyed his work on the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, and his work with The New Basement Tapes is also nice. But I do worry that his work here is too serious, too severe.
And it’s not just Mumford’s songs that perhaps take themselves a bit too seriously. Throughout my first listen, I found myself wondering if all of these songs lacked a certain bounce.
5. So, is this thing worth a damn?
Despite the questions I’ve already raised, yeah, I think it is. This is not an album where a group of talented songwriters/musicians bow at the altar of Dylan. This is a collaborative effort between Costello, Mumford, James, Goldsmith, Giddens, Burnett, and Dylan. This is not simply retread of The Basement Tapes. This is The New Basement Tapes. It’s its own thing with its own, unique identity.
There are certainly moments where Dylan’s voice shines through. Perhaps none more so than James’s “Down on the Bottom.”
I like that this song opens the album, because those first few lines sung by James really do sound like Bob Dylan calling from the basement of Big Pink in 1967. After the first verse, James begins singing in a higher register, leaving 1967 and the original basement tapes behind. Thus, “nowhere to go but up” proves a fitting mantra for The New Basement Tapes.
For me, the one true revelation brought by Lost on the River is Rhiannon Giddens. I was heretofore unfamiliar with her music, but I will now most definitely be tracking down the albums she has recorded as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It’s Giddens’s songwriting, banjo playing, and singing that bring a true Americana bent to the album. Her ethereal voice at times recalls Jeff Buckley (had he been raised on traditional American music rather than Led Zeppelin).
Giddens’s songs “Duncan and Jimmy” and “Spanish Mary” are probably my favorite songs on the album. Check out the video for “Spanish Mary”:
In general, Dawes is a little too lightweight for my tastes, but I think Goldsmith brings a nice balance when he collaborates with more eccentric artists. I really liked some of the work he did with Deer Tick’s John McCauley on the Middle Brother project. On this album, his square-guy, Jackson Browne shtick presents a nice counterbalance to the traditional leanings of Giddens and the Space Rock tendencies of James. Although, Goldsmith’s “Liberty Street” is far too vanilla for me, I actually quite enjoy what he did with “Card Shark” and “Diamond Ring.”
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that on the ladder of great songwriters, Elvis Costello is only a few rungs below Dylan, which some folks might not realize. While some might only see his signature nervous, punk rock energy and Buddy Holly glasses, Costello actually has one of the absolute greatest songwriting catalogues in his back pocket. And unlike a lot of the other heavy hitters, Costello has made few missteps. He’s laid an egg here and there, but for the most part, he’s consistently released great records for nearly four decades now.
This is all to say that having Costello setting Dylan’s lyrics to music is pretty special. The results speak for themselves. Check out the video for Costello’s “Six Months in Kansas City”:
So, there you have my answers to 5 questions about The New Basement Tapes. I had, and continue to have, some reservations about this project: some of the artists in The New Basement Tapes are polarizing figures; it’s unclear if these songs will stand the test of time; and it’s a little unclear if this is a worthwhile project for Bob Dylan. However, despite my reservations, I’m really enjoying this record. If you’re a fan of Costello, Mumford, James, Goldsmith, Giddens, Burnett, or Dylan, I would encourage you to at least check out a few of these songs. I think they’re worth a listen or two.