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Bob Dylan – Shadow Kingdom (Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings)

6 June 2023

The release of the audio album Shadow Kingdom, taken from Bob Dylan’s 2021 streaming film of the same name, is occasion for a curious bit of obfuscation. No musician credits are supplied for either the video or the album, and the actual players are reportedly not the ones who appear onscreen. The identities – albeit unconfirmed officially – of all concerned are readily available online, which makes this stunt seem oddly perverse.

In any case, Shadow Kingdom is a vital addition to the canon. Dylan puts a refreshing spin on material drawn mostly from his first decade of recording, backed by a nimble, understated band lacking both drums and keyboards. Loose and polished at once, the vibe is hushed like a 3:00 a.m. recital, with the electric guitars turned down to suit the unplugged sensibility, while the wistful accordion conjures hints of Music from Big Pink, the debut album from his old pals The Band. Dylan’s singing is playful and evocative, getting maximum melodic effect out of an expressive voice weathered by decades of hard labor. Highlights include a solemn “Tombstone Blues,” a surprisingly anxious “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and a swaggering “Watching the River Flow.” In fact, every track qualifies as a gem. Heard as a suite, Shadow Kingdom is just swell.