It is midnight at the Bon Bon Club in Marseille. The room is small with a bar at the back. The tables are half full. Smoke curls like incense from ceramic Ricard ashtrays. Three women and a man lean against the wall. Onstage, a crooner in two-tone shoes is backed by two guitars, a battered squeeze-box, and a double bass.
The band plays with a seamless ease earned from decades of nights like this, in clubs like this. When the singer pulls the microphone stand close and slows the song to a crawl, the band slows with him. The audience is rapt, wondering how did he know, even before they did, that this is what they needed to hear, tonight.
If you go to Marseille, you won’t find the Bon Bon Club; it does not exist. It is a ruse, a masque, a mise-en-scène conjured by Bob Dylan for his new album, Shadow Kingdom. Released earlier this month, it is his 40th record, and may well rank among his masterpieces.
During the pandemic, when many in the performing arts pivoted to live-streaming, film director Alma Har’el persuaded Dylan to do the same. Shadow Kingdom was originally broadcast live in July 2021 on the streaming platform Veeps. It’s now available to watch at your leisure on Apple TV.
The film’s black-and-white chiaroscuro looks and feels like a musical number in the second reel of a 1940s French film noir. Somehow you know the Bon Bon Club is subterranean. Louche and dissolute patrons sway with the rhythm. In a black blazer and shirt Dylan leads the band, sometimes strumming a vintage jazz guitar, sometimes cradling the mike with one hand and reaching out to the audience with the other.
Over the past decade Dylan has toured constantly, playing a mix of his own songs and standards such as “Autumn Leaves,” a tune he recorded for his 2015 album of standards, Shadows in the Night. “Autumn Leaves” was first performed by Yves Montand in the 1946 film Les Feuilles Mortes, set in the loss-filled dark days of post–World War II France. In one scene, Montand, wearing black, takes the stage in a club and sings the song, seductively leaning into and away from the crowd. Whether Dylan is channeling this film or not, it certainly resides somewhere in his vast knowledge reservoir of high and low culture.
Standard procedure would have been to film the live performance and release the soundtrack from the event later. Dylan decided he would do as they did in the 1940s: record the music in a studio and lip-synch to it on camera. The result is an extraordinary film and this extraordinary record.
Dylan decided he would do as they did in the 1940s: record the music in a studio and lip-synch to it on camera.
The album evokes the spirit of the film’s noir setting in its old-school musical arrangements. Dylan recruited the veteran musician-producers Don Was and T Bone Burnett to back him on upright bass and guitar, respectively, and there’s a lovely ghostly quality to the instrumentation, spliced through with accordion, pedal steel, and mandolin. There are no drums. (Burnett has worked with Dylan for many years, even touring with his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, when Dylan performed another “masque,” a kind of traveling medicine show.)
Dylan chose 14 songs from his early career, and the song sequence creates a narrative that is pitched perfectly for our own post-pandemic “postwar” moment. He begins with “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” from 1971, in an upbeat tempo, and slips some pandemic-inspired new lyrics into the song:
Gonna lock the doors and
Turn my back on the world for a while
I’ll stay right there,
’Til I paint my masterpiece.
Before segueing tellingly into “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” from 1967.
All of the songs lead into one another, like stanzas in a long-form poem. When he starts “Queen Jane Approximately,” the players take a back seat, the music swells and slows, and Dylan rhythmically delivers the lyrics as if it were a poetry recital with musical accompaniment. We are once again captivated by the signature Symbolist metaphors and killer one-liners that made the 1965 recording of this song on the album Highway 61 Revisited a classic. He ends the song with the question “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” It hangs in the air and the band answers, swinging double time into “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
Dylan is in great voice. The gravel and growl that sometimes made him sound like a blown amp are gone. Whether or not this is due to the pandemic, and the enforced rest from touring, his voice sounds not so much healed as reborn.
How many voices has he had? From his early folk-circuit twang through the stoned smoothness of Blonde on Blonde, the mellifluous surprise of Nashville Skyline, and the plaintive strains of “Sara,” he has given us a voice for each iteration of his art, each chapter of our lives, changing like so many hats or masks or identities. It’s worth noting that in his cameo appearance in the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—for which he wrote “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—he plays a character called “Alias.”
Dylan’s “new” voice, the film-noir nightclub persona, and maybe the best band he’s had on an album since the Band, all serve to bring his lyrics to the forefront of the mix. For the last track, just before an instrumental outro, he chooses, appropriately, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” It’s perhaps the most beautiful track on the whole album, and in this version the lyrics are everything. The record is over, the pandemic is over, loss is with us. So Dylan leaves us, in the last line on the album, with some parting advice: “Strike another match, go start anew, yes and it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
Norman Mailer called writing the spooky art. That goes for songs as well as stories. We civilians continue to want to know: Where does the magic come from? Dylan said, “It’s not me, it’s the songs. I’m just the postman. I deliver the songs.” Under lockdown, in the sanctuary of the studio, Dylan hid with his masked band and conjured this wonderfully spooky music and delivered it to us.
Turn the lights down, play it end to end, and when a word or phrase or line hits you with the thrill of unexpected recognition, wonder how could he know, once again, that this is exactly what you needed to hear right now.
S. P. Murphy is an arts consultant and writer living in London