Bob Dylan’s new live album—evocatively titled Shadow Kingdom—is a how-to guide for graceful aging: Fortune and fame are fleeting; you’ll get them or you won’t, but they don’t really matter. Remember your forebears, but don’t let their ghosts dictate the direction of your own life. In order to age with grace, you must toil at the impossible task of reconciling your self-perception with others’ perceptions of you. You’ll fail over and over again, and you’ll ultimately be unsuccessful at communicating your interiority, but you’ve got to try.
Shadow Kingdom was recorded in spring 2021 and debuted in film that summer as a one-night-only video stream. That film saw wide release this June. Dylan recorded the album when he was eighty years old, sixty-two years after his first record deal. It’s an old man’s album, but it consists almost entirely of a young man’s songs—eleven of its thirteen songs were recorded between 1965 and 1971.
The themes of the album are familiar territory for Dylan, if not as explicit in his earlier work. In 1964, he ended his song “My Back Pages” with the couplet, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Those lines were written two years after Robert Zimmerman legally changed his name, and were far more personal than anything he had sung before. They also introduced two themes that came to preoccupy the singer: aging and self-definition.
It makes sense that “My Back Pages” was released on an album called Another Side of Bob Dylan. Gone were the protest songs and mythical stories of American folk music; here is a collection of introspections like “Spanish Harlem Incident,” where Dylan plainly sings, “I’ve been wondering all about me.”
And Dylan kept changing. By 1965 he fancied himself a modernist poet. Four years later he was a country singer; 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour featured Dylan the clown-faced troubadour; four years after that he was a born-again Christian; and four years after that he released the decidedly un-Christian album Infidels. Today he is a recluse—hardly ever granting interviews—who is in the thirty-fifth year of his Never Ending Tour.
One might expect Shadow Kingdom to be a nostalgia trip, a victory lap, or a cheap cash grab—until you listen to it. None of the songs share their original source’s sonic qualities or emotional orientations. Those that were fast have been slowed, those that were sad sound happy. Dylan emphasizes lyrics that were once overshadowed, enunciating words that he previously glided through. The album is a set of photographic negatives of the original recordings of each song.
Consider the opening track “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Dylan wrote the song for the Band and subsequently released his own version on 1971’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. There’s a swagger to the original—the instrumentation is jaunty and the final lines are delivered with the confidence of a newly famous young man: “Someday, everything’s gonna be different / When I paint my masterpiece.” The Shadow Kingdomversion is more laid back. The backing band bounces along like it has been playing the song for years, Dylan’s vocals sound like they’re being forced through a smirk, and those final lines come more like a punchline than a brag.
This rendition of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” announces the record’s MO: Here’s a young man’s music reflected through a prism of time and experience. Shadow Kingdom is a forthright exploration of what it means to grow old. Dylan delves into his catalogue’s back pages in an attempt to discover what made him the man he is today. In doing so, he provides his listeners with a masterclass in retrospection.
The lucidity of Dylan’s work connects to the inevitable march of time on our bodies and souls. The songs aren’t preternaturally smoothed over to cover Dylan’s aging vocal tone—there’s no botox applied to the music or to the musician, it would seem. He gravels through lines that were once sing-songy, his backing band playing with the speed of a grandfather getting out of an easy chair. And he’s okay with that; he knows it’s necessary.
One of his only recent long-form interviews was, tellingly, with AARP Magazine in 2015. He told them,
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. . . . Older people gotta be wise. . . . You leave certain things to the young and you don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.
Or, as he told 60 Minutes in 2004 when asked if he’s disappointed that he can’t write songs like he used to, “Well, you can’t do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now.”
To age gracefully is to take it in stride, or at least to roll with the punches. As Dylan writes in The Philosophy of Modern Song, “Old age is waiting for all of us, as surely as the grave. Those who dodge the grave long enough to become eminent will soon discover they are now old and in the way.” In other words, perform your old songs as much as you want, but let them change—just like you have.
Bob Dylan has been in the business of self-definition ever since he changed his name. He gave himself a blank slate, shipped off to New York City, and has been trying to find out who he really is since. As he told 60 Minutes, “Some people get born, you know, with the wrong names.” When asked why he decided on “Bob Dylan,” he said, “You can call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Dylan’s desire to be only what he says he is is best illustrated by the Shadow Kingdom versions of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” On “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” he stresses three lines like never before: “It’s either fortune or fame / You must pick one or the other / Though neither are to be what they claim.” The song was released in 1965, when Dylan had only been in the spotlight for three years. By that time, however, he was already on his third self-iteration. Those lines probably meant something to him then, but today the magnitude is exponentially greater. The press, the fans, and the seductive glow of record label checks can compel artists to abandon or ignore who they really are—to “sell out,” as punk rockers say. But that’s as unnatural and debasing as fighting old age.
Dylan got his start in the folk scene, a protégé of Woody Guthrie singing protest songs and American myths in Greenwich Village. But it was stifling to an artist perpetually exploring himself. As he writes in Chronicles Vol. I, “The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden. . . . The road out would be treacherous, and I didn’t know where it would lead but I followed it anyway.”
To 60 Minutes he noted that the only people he feels the need to answer to are himself and God. In other words, Dylan does not let the opinions of others color his own self-perception. He has tried tirelessly to communicate the incommunicable—his interiority—to his audience. Ironically perhaps, staying true to himself has gone hand in hand with duping the media, not to mention his listeners. In 1962, when asked if he considered himself more of a poet or a musician, he laughed and said, “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a song and dance man.”
Shadow Kingdom sounds honest, which is a difficult sentiment to attribute to Dylan. He’s an ironist, trickster, and playful fabulist. He’s reminiscent of Dionysus, whom one of my college professors called “the only god that can appear before man in his true form, because his true form is deception.” Shadow Kingdom presents us with a mercurial artist in a rare, though purposeful, moment of stasis.
Casey Puerzer is a Ph.D. student in the Political Science Department at Boston College, specializing in American politics.
Image: Screenshot of Bob Dylan taken from Shadow Kingdom. (Bob Dylan YouTube Channel)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe