Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue

Reviews > CDs

Published: 2003/08/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Masked and Anonymous – Bob Dylan and various artists

Columbia Records 90536

I was on the L train between First Avenue and Bedford when the Blackout hit.
The train jerked to a stop, the lights disappearing and passengers falling
on each other in a pre-rush hour daze. I was near the end of my first listen
to the soundtrack to Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous. "Things fall
apart," Dylan intoned as Jack Fate, his quasi-fictional film persona,
"especially all the neat order of rules and laws. The way we look at the
world is the way we really are. See it from a fair garden, everything looks
cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you'll see plunder and murder."

And then began "City of Gold," a gorgeous new hymn-like Dylan tune,
performed by 75 year-old gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds, as the dim
emergency lights flickered on and people dusted themselves off. The next 40
minutes were spent in a dull, resigned panic, heat rising in the car. Dylan
has long viewed himself as something more than a late middle age rock star
playing for a late middle age audience. "Give me a thousand acres of
tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you'll see the Authentic
alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one," he groused in the impressionistic
liner notes to 1994's World Gone Wrong. In Masked and
Anonymous, filmed mostly in a visually rich Los Angeles barrio, Dylan's
songs play as shots of urban poverty flicker by. He did the same in 1978's
Renaldo and Clara, shooting panoramas of Harlem as "Hurricane," his
1975 protest anthem for the jailed boxer Rubin Carter, played.

On the surface, the notion that Dylan's country-fed skiffle has anything to
say about (or to) life in the ghetto is a bit silly. One can say with a fair
bit of confidence that he doesn't exactly represent the voice of urban youth
these days. But, standing in the stopped subway car, the Masked and
Anonymous soundtrack went a long way to argue Dylan's point. The album
is comprised of four new cuts by Dylan and his band, plus 10 other numbers – all Dylan tunes – performed by a variety of international pop artists. The
album is right multi-lingual — mostly in English, true, but hopping
globally with Articolo's Italian hip-hop reading of "Like A Rolling Stone,"
Franceso de Gregori's perfect mariachi take on "If You See Her, Say Hello,"
and the Magokoro Brothers' lean Japanese version of "My Back Pages" (also
represented in the film by The Ramones' sugar-pop rendition).

The point of the foreign language cuts doesn't particularly seem to be to
make a case for Dylan's worldwide stature, but to tap his work into a
bizarre global tapestry. Certainly, that was their place in the
much-maligned movie they accompany, currently sadly languishing at the box
office. In the subway, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and English voices
worriedly chattering in the humid din, Dylan's songs cut through them,
simultaneously providing a sensitive soundtrack to the setting and climbing
above them.

With only two albums of new material to his credit in the past decade, much
of Dylan's work involves the constant reappraisal of his legacy. Even if
most of the songs he performed in concert through the '90s weren't
particularly new, his character surely was: a run-down gentleman circling
with dignity one last time. And, like always, Dylan's task was to convince
the audience that that's who he always was. With 2001's "Love and
Theft" behind him, Dylan's character is subtly morphing once again, the
presumably hand-picked (or, at least, Bob-approved) soundtrack to Masked
and Anonymous speaking to that.

Like the careful arrangement of 1985's Biograph compilation (which
placed amphetamine epics like "Visions of Johanna" side-by-side with
religious masterpieces like "Every Grain of Sand" to draw associative paths
through Dylan's career), Masked and Anonymous finds itself
emphasizing, of all themes, Dylan's Christianity — or, at least, a
variation on his religious work. The soundtrack begins with a ranting
preacher (lifted from the movie), follows up quickly with the gospel-era
"Gotta Serve Somebody," and closes with "City of Gold." The opening and
closing slots certainly seem indicative. Likewise, the recently released
tribute album, Gotta Serve Somebody: the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan
(which Dylan himself participated in via a duet with Mavis Staples), keeps
our eyes pointed towards that part of the catalogue.

For his part, Dylan ain't playing his cards yet. His own contributions to
the soundtrack are wonderful, if elusive. The rockin' version of the
Basement Tapes-era "Down In The Flood" and the bluegrass chestnut
"Diamond Joe" are both wonderful. It is his other two numbers – a reworking
of 1997's "Cold Irons Bound" and a cover of the traditional "Dixie" – that
are the most alluring. Once one gets over the confusion of hearing the folk
bard of the Civil Rights movement singing that he wishes he were in Dixie,
it's a marvelous performance. "To live and die in Dixie," he sings in his
decaying voice, and one knows that it's not living in Dixie he's concerned
about — which points directly towards "Cold Irons Bound," the album's
penultimate cut.

"Everybody out," the conductor called, and we walked towards the rear of the
train, open doors leading into the dark maw of the tunnel — a chance to
walk on the subway tracks, a lifelong dream. "Cold Irons Bound" seemed
appropriate. I hopped down, amidst firemen's flashing beams. "Stay to the
right," they shouted. "Don't go near the third rail." And ahead into the
darkness, back towards First Avenue. "It's only 500 feet," somebody said. I
hit play. The band crested into noise. George Recile's drums thundered in.
"I'm beginning to hear voices," Dylan sang, "and there's no one around." I
moved blindly towards the station, as Dylan's band cut a thick atmosphere.

Around me, the voices continued to chatter, all walking in measured steps
towards the station in the distance. Dylan's voice wavered in and out
apocalyptic incoherence. "Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood," he
sang, trapped between worlds. I could see the outlines of moving bodies. I
squinted. "Hey," somebody called from my left. "You gotta jump up here." I
was back in the station. Being daytime, I had expected it to be flooded with
light. It remained in murky dark, though as soon as I looked, it began to
distinguish itself, abandoned and desolate like the deck of a sunken ship. I
climbed the stairs as "City of Gold" began again, ascending into glorious

Show 0 Comments