Roaring through his Shadow Kingdom, Bob Dylan selects the delicate tracks from the first half of his career with great care. Never quite receiving an album release of its own beyond the Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II set, Watching the River Flow is a perfect start to a promising set. A tale of writers block and frustration, a defiant chance to move away from engaging with the world around him, and it with him. Dylan works through a new flow of irony to a track that maintains he has nothing to say. He has said much since then but has stuck true to the core of Watching the River Flow, he has detached from the world but remained in it as a force.
Where the calmer flow comes through in the vocals Dylan has for this old track. He has taken his blues-like instrumental charm of the modern era and applied it to one of his many acclaimed tracks. This is what U2 thought they were doing on Songs of Surrender. Dylan feels genuine and does take considerable time to look back on himself. The shifting tides that brought a politically hailed electric blues guitarist to the shuffling, creaky of modern country twinges with a simmering lounge feel to boot. For those of us that missed the Shadow Kingdom recording, Watching the River Flow gives an idea of the smoky iconography Dylan would rely on. It is the equivalent of those who have seen the stripped-back yet sensible appeal of his stage presence.
Reflection is certainly the key to Watching the River Flow. The sharp and sudden first line, “What’s the matter with me,” still as astounding as it was all those decades ago. But the crucial difference is the reflection Dylan presents, something the man himself would rarely do with such obvious nature. He is not a musician to go out there and cover the oldies, especially when his latest album provided him with a place to reflect on the 1960s and 1970s. Watching the River Flow is a desperately wanted piece, something the hardcore Dylan unit will claw over and pick apart, and rightly so. It is not often Dylan dips into his discography from years gone by with such prolific songs. A Blonde on Blonde piece here, a Shot of Love there, but never the best of his tracks. Here it is though.
Perhaps all that build-up was just too much. Dylan feels comfortable with the American songbook covers style he crafted for himself over the last decade, and rightly so. It is a moving implementation but, crucially, it has a core that works for it. Watching the River Flow benefits from that tremendously. It is, of course, not superior to that of the original, but to hear Dylan reflect openly and with an ever-present sharpness is quite the treat. As fans sit in earnest anxiety to hear the rest of the tracks, Watching the River Flow will certainly make for a nice pairing with that of the Greatest Hits Vol. II piece. Enough of a difference, enough of a pace change, to truly make for something interesting.