I’m Not There
I’m Not There: Original Soundtrack
Y’know, with the exception of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I can’t for the life of me think of a rock music-based movie soundtrack that I enjoyed at all. They’re too fucking patchy and the whole thing often reeks of tenuous associations (“Music Inspired By”) and cash-ins. HOWEVER, when you’re dealing with a Todd Haynes film, you know there’s going to be more than your fair share of maverick outsider artistry and, even more importantly, full-on weirdness. Since the soundtrack we’re speaking of here is the one to Haynes’ “portrait of the artist as a young collage” opus about the “life” of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, c’mon, how can I not bend the rules and enjoy it?
Okay, first things first, the genius thing about this album, is that it’s based around a long-lost Basement Tapes outtake, a stellar fucking Basement Tapes outtake, a strange, unfinished slip of a song. “I’m Not There” is a low-fi lament about damaged love, unhealthy love, lost and gained and lost again, and it might be one of Dylan’s best songs ever. Accompanied by tape hiss and the quietly sympathetic Band (in particular, Garth Hudson’s church-like organ is a revelation), Dylan’s voice sounds absolutely wracked and naked, almost too much so, for someone so young at that time. The bravado and lightning wordplay of just a few months before is now long gone, replaced by a more deliberate, prayerful cadence that builds slowly to an emotional crescendo. It’s gorgeous, and it’s the last thing you’ll hear on this two-disc set. Perversely, one of the first things you hear on the soundtrack is Sonic Youth’s rough-and-tumble cover of the same — over a narcotic haze of guitar buzz and distortion, Thurston Moore whispers Dylan’s meditative words in that strangely alluring drawl of his, and somehow it becomes something very different, less desperate as Dylan’s confession, but, god, the song is magic in anyone’s hands, so it still shines and shines.
And there are more nifty homages to the fertile, easy camaraderie of the Basement Tapes. Jim James and Calexico craft this wonderfully fucking lush, elegiac take on “Goin’ To Acapulco,” mining all the hidden regret of a quickie song ostensibly about a vacation into this ornate set-piece. Glenn Hansard and Markéta Irglová (theme from Closer) sing their hearts out on a loose, freewheeling version of “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere.”
Elsewhere, the songs that made me sit up with a jolt and take notice were way more numerous than I could have hoped. Mark Lanegan lends an almost illegal amount of biblical gravitas to the spaghetti western self-mythologizing saga, “The Man In The Long Black Coat.” Willie Nelson walks into a Mexican bar with Calexico… I know that sounds like the setup of some nerdy joke, but goddamn, those gents really force Willie to up his game in “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).” Willie gives one of his more inspired performances of recent years, walking around in those lyrics, sleeping on them for a few days, drinking with them, until he is the wanderer in the tale, lost and sundazed, as Calexico crafts this gorgeous, sad, cinematic Mexicali-noir all around him, Mariachi horns, shuffling drums, Spanish guitar. (The Mariachi aesthetics would surface again in Roger McGuin’s collaboration with Calexio and a Los Lobos number.) The centerpiece to one of the truly redemptive parts of the film, X’s John Doe delivers an impassioned, authentically gospel take on “Pressing On” that gets to the joyous core of the original, just beautiful. Stephen Malkmus, once hotly tipped as a new Dylan for the ’90s, all bratty wordplay and angular shapes, is older now and more relaxed, but still delivers an okay reading of “Ballad of a Thin Man” and a brief, impossibly bittersweet take on “Can’t Leave Her Behind” with Lee Ranaldo (didn’t know he had it in him). Sufjan Stevens’ “Ring Them Bells” is almost a little too baroque and pep-rally-riffic, but goddamn it works, giving one of Dylan’s holy roller tunes a buff and a shine. Yo La Tengo rocks out like Dylan and The Hawks circa “Judas!” with a surprising “Mama, I Can’t Leave You Behind.” (Who’d’ve thunk Yo La Tengo would rock the hardest?) Black Keys does this bluesy staccato forced march through “The Wicked Messenger.” And near the very end, Antony and the Johnsons deliver the saddest, most heartbreaking torch version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” I’ve heard yet — you WILL want this one for your funeral.
There are weak moments, sadly inevitable in a two-disc set, where the original intention behind the soundtrack gets a little diluted and humdrum and the musicians seem to be doing this rock and roll fantasy camp kinda gig. Fr’instance, Jack Johnson’s “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind/A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” is a snoozer. Elsewhere, I find myself compulsively fast-forwarding through Eddie Vedder’s reading of “All Along the Watchtower,” Jeff Tweedy’s flat “Simple Twist of Fate” suffers just by being in such close proximity to Mark Lanegan and the jaw-dropping Willie Nelson/Calexico team-up, while Mason Jennings, Marcus Carl Franklin and Bob Forrest suffer by virtue of not standing out at all, a byproduct of being a little too reverent with the source material.