Chrissie Hynde Finds Something New in Overlooked Dylan Songs
A mini-genre of music has emerged in recent years: Bob Dylan tribute records from excellent female singers. Joan Osborne, Bettye LaVette, and Emma Swift have all made great contributions since 2017, but Chrissie Hynde, with her new album, Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, may have achieved mastery. Made with Pretenders bandmate James Walbourne, via text messages during the pandemic lockdown, Standing in the Doorway is a rich experience of emotional and intellectual profundity.
The eternal truth and power of Dylan’s lyrics, full of ancient wisdom and poetic dexterity, resonate with dramatic force. It is as if these songs are the chorus parts in a classical Greek tragedy, observing the consequences of human folly while also signifying the potential for deliverance.
All four of Dylan’s recent celebrants demonstrate why his songs deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is only Hynde, however, who manages to transcend the “tribute album” itself and create a musical document of standalone artistry.
The restraints of the lockdown work in her favor, as limited accompaniment — acoustic guitar, piano, mandolin, slide guitar — give the nine songs a hypnotic cohesion. Her curation is also inspired. There is not one “hit” on Standing in the Doorway. Instead, Hynde deftly leads her listeners through unique renditions of some of Dylan’s best and most obscure songs, such as the wonderfully spooky “Blind Willie McTell,” an fan favorite that appeared as a B-side in 1998, and “In the Summertime,” a forgettable cut from Shot of Love that Hynde makes endlessly wistful and endearing.
With “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” Hynde saves Dylan from himself. Her performance transforms what was originally turgid and incoherent into a heartbreaking plea for friendship, love, and mercy. Anyone who isn’t brought to tears by Hynde’s version should reevaluate their life.
“You’re a Big Girl Now” is another standout track. Hynde’s soft and understated delivery intertwines sexuality with sadness, leading to a dark seduction that the original could never quite accomplish.
The problem with covering Dylan is that comparisons are inevitable. While outstanding, Hynde’s performance of “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” cannot compete with Elvis Presley’s definitive version. Her gorgeous rendition of “Every Grain of Sand,” maybe Dylan’s best song, does not rise to the spiritual standard of Lizz Wright’s version.
When it comes to singing, Chrissie Hynde stands on her own all the same. Her tender but tough phrasing and stretching of the melodies combine whimsy and melancholy, creating a love letter to Dylan but also to the endlessly fraught, horrific, and amazing species that he has spent a lifetime investigating in song. Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan rises out of the conditions of disease, chaos, and deprivation to document and exercise aesthetic and philosophic beauty. That’s one definition of hope.