Friday, September 16, 2011

Ring them Bells

Zel 2 from brent larson on Vimeo.

This is my new favorite song--"Ring Them Bells" by Bob Dylan.  Sorry about that first video, it was the only version of the original song in embeddable form that I could find on the internet.  And it's gorgeous, I like it, but it feels a little too personal for posting here.

Anyway, I posted this just to offer an interesting study in contrasts. My favorite artist of recent years, Sufjan Stevens, recorded a cover of this song for the soundtrack album to the film I'm Not There, and it's fascinating the differences that can arise between two artistic visions of the same material.  Both of these versions are performed by geniuses (I think Sufjan is the only young artist working today who has a comparable genius to the young Dylan, though his effect may never be felt on the same scale), and I can't decide which I like better.

The way I see it:  Dylan sings the song as an order from above, a proclamation of light in the darkness.  The rest of Oh Mercy, the album the song appears on, is a vision of the world as broken, fallen, defeated, painful.  But here, Dylan offers a reason to soldier on, a prophetic voice announcing the coming end of this world, when the tribulation will be over and the revelation will be at hand.  His voice is craggy, ancient, powerful, yet not without its tinges of affection.  The words are Biblical, but reworked for a rock song.  Of indescribable age, but looking ever forward to what is to come.  He is Jeremiah on high, declaring the way of the Lord in a time when that way seems lost.

Sufjan, on the other hand, is down below, looking up.  Hearing the declaration from above he begins spreading the message to others.  The darkness has dropped away; the hour that was prophesied has come.  The joy spreads, and with it the song.  Before long, the song has spread to multitudes, and all join in what has become a hymn of praise.  All remnants of fear and sadness drop away.  The song is remaking the world, and it spreads here and there, taken up by birds and insects, grass and trees, continuing without any words because none are needed, until finally the excess of joy subsides into blissful peace.

Others have covered the song as well over the years, yet none quite equal these two in my estimation.  Gordon Lightfoot's version, though, is beautiful, pitched about halfway between Dylan's and Sufjan's, with a craggier voice but a more joyful delivery.  He is the old man joining the young in their response to Dylan's declaration.  But he does not continue the song as Sufjan does, he still sees it as a coming vision, not a prophecy made immanent.  Joe Cocker also offers a tremendous cover, spreading Dylan's message with unequaled soul and passion--yet again the song is too short, it feels cut off, not allowed to break free and live on its own.  Cocker continues Dylan's mission of proclamation, but that is all he does, he cannot make the song live on his own.

There are many other covers, from legends like Joan Baez and Ron Sexsmith, but they mostly come off too sweet or too clumsy--they do not have the power, the passion, or the joy of the original two.  The one other version that does break its bounds, that grows as you listen to it, that manages to equal the passion and power, is by Heart singing with Layne Staley from Alice in Chains.  For them, the song comes from a place of great pain.  It is an outpouring of mingled grief and joy, a desperate cry for redemption and affirmation that redemption is already here.  Their voices rise in harmony, and the song lives on.

P.S. I've been reading Greil Marcus lately.  If you've ever read anything by him you can probably tell.