Why "triplicate"? There are many ways to say things that come in threes. Some are musical, some are baseball, some sexy or political or bookish or religious or painterly: trio, triad, triple, trinity, triptych, triumvirate, threesome, tripartite, trilogy. Why did Dylan choose this title for his latest record, and his first three-disc album ever, to be released on March 31?
"Triplicate" goes "duplicate" one better. The thirty (three times ten-to-a-disc) songs on this record include many that were also, once upon a time, recorded by Frank Sinatra. However, it's as wrong to call Triplicate an album of "Sinatra covers" as it was to apply the description to Shadows In The Night (2015) or Fallen Angels (2016). Were this a record of Dylan covering Sinatra, you might call it "Duplicate." On this third album of standards chiefly from Dylan's own lifetime, starting in his youngest years in the early 1940s, he makes it crystal clear that he's not duplicating anyone else's earlier efforts, for those still thinking so.
Dylan does songs sung by Sinatra, but more famously done by others. Take "I Could Have Told You." Yes, Sinatra sang it. But so did Dinah Washington and Count Basie. "Stormy Weather"? Lena Horne, Billie Holiday. "P.S. I Love You"? Nope, not the Beatles, not even the same song; Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney. "The Best Is Yet To Come"? Tony Bennett. "As Time Goes By"? Francis Albert does not spring first to mind at all: it's Dooley Wilson.
Most of the songs on the three discs, entitled individually 'Til The Sun Goes Down, Devil Dolls and Comin' Home Late, were written by two people, a composer and a lyricist. All the greats are here: Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III, Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parrish, Sammy Fain and Lew Brown. And there's someone else here, too — a composer and lyricist who plays both parts, who does it all himself. Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter, is collaborating on these golden old standards with their makers: three people. Triplicate.
The songs, according to Dylan's website, are "hand-chosen songs from an array of American songwriters" and "presented in a thematically-arranged 10-song sequence" on each disc. The first side, 'Til The Sun Goes Down, begins with one of the earliest songs included, "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans" (1929) and sweeps through love-lost lyrics of the 1930s-1950s, to conclude by looping back to a song Bing Crosby made a smash in 1939, "Trade Winds." Disc 2 has a curveball of a title — when I saw Devil Dolls, I thought immediately of Tod Browning's scary, and utterly weird (even for Browning!) The Devil-Doll (1936), the saga of a banker turned mad scientist (Lionel Barrymore) who escapes from Devil's Island to find his long-lost daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan). Devil Dolls begins with "Braggin'" — not, as one might suspect, Woody Guthrie's "Bragging Song," but a Tony Pastor and his Orchestra B-side song from Dylan's own earliest days. "As Time Goes By," one of the best-known American songs, was written back in 1931, but became the theme of Rick and Ilsa's Paris days in Casablanca (1942) in its legendary performance by Dooley Wilson when Dylan was a toddler, and World War II covered the earth.
This sassiest of all the discs closes with the jolly, self-deprecating, perhaps double-entendred "There's a Flaw In My Flue." Sinatra heard this song and loved it, and loved it in part because Bing Crosby hadn't recorded it. As Sinatra told the New York Times in 1990, "'When they played it, one of the record company guys says to me, 'What is this?' and I said, 'It's a love song.' I said, 'There's a flaw in my flue, beautiful.' ''
"Day In, Day Out" (1939), which I've always thought of as a Nat King Cole song, kicks off the last disc, Comin' Home Late. Like most of the tracks it is a love song, but like all of them, there's an edge and uncertainty to it: will we see each other? will you still love me? will I still love you? There's a comfort, but also a potential for great boredom, in something that goes on day in, day out, forever and ever amen. "Stardust" Dylan sings in tribute, it sounds to me, not to Sinatra or to anyone but Willie Nelson, and he sings it gorgeously. "It's Funny to Everyone But Me," made popular by the Ink Spots in 1939, is a lament of head vs. heart; the singer's head tells him no, but his heart still loves the woman lost, even if it's "the joke of the century." Unsurprisingly, there are traveling songs, like "Sentimental Journey" — Dylan's has been and remains a traveler's life. Triplicate ends on a dip back to the Jazz Age with the sad, seeking "Why Was I Born?" (1929). Covers of this song by women are its classics: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland. "Why was I born to love you?" asks the refrain, and no reply will ever come. "I'm a poor fool, but what can I do? Why was I born to love you?" Dylan's own songs, since the middle 1960s, have borrowed the trope of irrefragable questions — questions that cannot be answered, and to which no answer even seems possible or expected — from the ballad and, we now realize more fully, from the popular songs of his own life and times.
The music on these discs is clear as a bell, swoony and swingy and spectacularly full of sound and soul. Dylan's longtime traveling band backs his play well, and the master hand of Jack Frost — Dylan's own alias as producer — swirls everything together around the vocals. I've said it before, and it's nowhere clearer than on all these songs, that Dylan is a genius at phrasing: the splitting and delivery of a line, every breath and held or let-go note in place. Sinatra was too, of course; but Dylan is doing his own thing and his own versions, newly orchestrated and styled by him. "Stormy Weather" and "This Nearly Was Mine" are two of my favorite tracks on Triplicate, and they are back to back. Listen to them thus, as Dylan has meant you to, and hear just what I mean.
Go on, learn something about American music, about Bob Dylan and what he likes, and about yourself. It's not often that you have history, nostalgia, familiarity, love, and something new, ten to a side.