Chrissie Hynde was fresh from the release of another very good Pretenders’ album, Hate For Sale, when everyone was reckoning with the fact that the pandemic wasn’t a passing thing, and tours and concerts were going to be on hold for another year. Inspired by the renewed revelation of Bob Dylan’s songwriting prowess as Murder Most Foul was released in advance for Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first album of original material in 8 years, Hynde and Pretenders’ guitarist James Walbourne decided to take on an album’s worth of Dylan covers working remotely, sending files back and forth to ride out the lockdown.
Smartly, Hynde has avoided some of the obvious Dylan hits that have been covered popularly by the likes of The Byrds, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, and many others, tracks like “My Back Pages,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ In the Wind,” or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which would force comparisons. Instead, Hynde has focused on lesser-known tracks for the most part, selecting favorites that not only display Dylan’s playful use of language, and melodies that fit her vocal abilities and stand up in these mostly acoustic settings. One of the best here, “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” gets lifted from Dylan’s ’83 release Infidels, benefits from Walbourne’s bottleneck slide guitar, as Hynde handles the song’s numerous wordy verses without once losing the delicate chorus’ warmth and sense of longing.
The album’s centerpiece is “Blind Willie McTell,” which was recorded during the sessions for Infidels, but didn’t see release until Dylan authorized a “Bootleg” of rare and unreleased songs. While Dylan’s song sang the praises of the blues singer who wrote “Statesboro Blues,” popularized by the Allman Bros., his lyrics describe how the slave experience and Jim Crow discrimination fueled the blues that had become a popular American artform, clearly still relevant in the wake of the political activism that sprang from the death of George Floyd. “Sweetheart Like You,” another from that same period, finds Hynde delivering Dylan’s poignant and still prescient lyric that “patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings/Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king.”
Musically, Hynde and Walbourne keep things pretty simple, acoustic guitars, pianos and subtle keyboard embellishments, the rare tasteful guitar lead, no drums or rhythm section. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” which goes back to very early Dylan, his ’65 album Bringing It All Back Home, the guitars ring out brightly with a bit of a Latin feel, with a lovely extended instrumental coda that includes the sound of birds outdoors and the rumbling of nearby cars. Hynde honors these lovely melodies she’s chosen but brings a bit of her feminist bite into her delivery when Dylan’s misogyny surfaces in “You’re A Big Girl Now,” from his divorce album, Blood on the Tracks from ’75, but delivers his best spiritual hymn, “Every Grain of Sand,” with a reverence to suggest she’s a true believer. As tributes go, Hynde honors Dylan’s skill nicely here, serving these songs as a lovely keepsake, perhaps surprising those fans who may have failed to recognize the master craftsman’s skill because his voice can be an acquired taste.
Key Tracks: “Blind Willie McTell” / “Every Grain Of Sand” / “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”
Artists With Similar Fire: Pretenders / Tom Petty / Bob Dylan
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb