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(Credit: Sufjan Stevens)

Music

Listen to Sufjan Stevens' unique cover of Bob Dylan song 'Ring Them Bells'

Sufjan Stevens has always managed to avoid categorisation. His songwriting – at once experimental and deeply rooted in the folkish meanderings of 2000s acoustic – seems to shapeshift with each new album, refusing to conform to the listener’s expectations. Most will know Stevens from his contributions to the beloved soundtrack of 2016’s Call Me By Your Name, but there is far more to the American singer-songwriter than ‘Futile Devices’. Sufjan has also released serpentine creations such as the frequently unruly Illinoise, which features a chamber orchestra of vibraphonists, saxophonists, string players, and more. In this mesmerising Bob Dylan cover, he uses that same sonic palette to craft something heartfelt and exploratory.

Released as part of the soundtrack for I’m Not There, a 2007 film in which six different characters embody different aspects of Bob Dylan’s life and work, ‘Ring Them Bells’ sees Sufjan deliver what has to be one of the best Bob Dylan covers of all time. Where Dylan’s original track is a coarse wail, Steven’s rendition is a velvety sonic swirl, in which cartoonish horn sections bleed into intimate acoustic passages – all sewn together by Steven’s warm vocals.

Dylan’s original recording formed part of his 1989 born-again album Oh Mercy, which goes some way in explaining the track’s distinctly hymn-like quality. At the same time, Dylan’s lyrics carry that same pastoral imagery that he so treasured in the traditional folk music of Ireland. “Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams,” he sings. “Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams.”

In Bob Dylan All The Songs, authors Phillipe Magotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon suggest that Dylan’s main source of inspiration during the writing of Oh Mercy was the Gospel of Mathew. In the 1970s, Dylan surprised his fans by weaving the fire-and-brimstone vehemence of gospel preachers into his songcraft. “Are you ready for the judgement? Are you ready for the terrible swift sword?” he sings on ‘Desolation Row’. “Are you ready for Armageddon? Are you ready for the day of the Lord?”

The majority, as it turned out, were not. In fact, most fans were confused that the same man who had once urged them “don’t follow leaders” in ‘Homesick Subertannean Blues’ was now asking them to think about their sins. As the beat poet Allen Ginsberg said of Dylan’s faith: “He seemed to be trying to transcend himself into something else, which I thought was healthy.” In the end, it only lasted a few years, and many went on to regard Dylan’s Christianity as a passing phase. Still, ‘Ring Them Bells’, while not as evangelistic as the likes of ‘Desolation Row’, is clearly indebted to biblical scripture. Make sure you check out Sufjan Steven’s unique cover of the Oh Mercy track if you haven’t already.

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