There’s a lot to like about Chimes of Freedom – the Amnesty International benefit album with more than 70 covers of Bob Dylan songs. Its sprawl means that artists have to reach deep into his catalog, so Adele’s version of “Make You Feel My Love” is fresh because she reinvents it as a soulful piano ballad, while the Gaslight Anthem’s version of “Changing of the Guards” sounds equally new because I haven’t heard Street-Legal in 30 years. The talent lineup ranges from expected (Costello, Steve Earle, Patti Smith, Joan Baez) to intriguing (Raphael Saadiq, Sugarland, Queens of the Stone Age, K’naan) to stunt casting (Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha). Neither of the oddities crash, or not in the way you might expect. Cyrus handles “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” just fine – not special, but a number of more respected artists turn in less engaging efforts. Ke$ha sings “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” accompanied only by distant feedback and a bordering-on-subterranean cello. Others have written that her performance sounds like a high school drama class performance, but when you hear her sniff her snotty nose, she sounds more like someone at the end of a three-day party whose crashing in every way. It’s hard to hear but hard to skip, and its an act of kindness to Dylan fans that they get a Kronos Quartet version of the song after Ke$ha’s to divert attention for real or acted breakdown just behind.
Chimes of Freedom suffers from its concept because there’s nothing new about a collection of Dylan covers. In 2002, Uncut pulled together two discs’ worth, and the I’m Not There soundtrack employed an equally star-studded lineup. Artists have been living off his words for decades now, and the best versions revealed something new in the song or the artists who covered them. Here, the artists often perform as fans and treat the songs a little too respectful. Bob’s not this reverent when he plays his own songs, and while I enjoy the enthusiasm with which Brett Dennen steps into Bob’s shoes for “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” I’d rather have something as ingenious as Howard Tate’s R&B version of “Girl from the North Country” or as fragile as Yo La Tengo’s “I Threw it All Away.” I keep waiting through Chimes of Freedom for someone to try to steal a song from Dylan the way Lou Reed made “Foot of Pride” his, but I settle for My Chemical Romance’s punkeroo “Desolation Row” and K’naan’s “With God on Our Side,” which sets the curdled lyrics next to the sweeping, uplifting music that echoes the sentiments of those whose belief in their own rightness Dylan mocks.
The respect the players show for Dylan means they play with great earnestness, which is not the same thing as Bob keeping a straight face.