If you’re looking for the weirdest Dylan covers album, this is it. It’s not just weird because it transforms Dylan into doomy eighties industrial agit-electro-pop, but it’s also in Swedish, and just plain different. None of the original tunes have been kept fully intact. Without Wikipedia providing me the song titles translated into English, I wouldn’t have even known what most of these songs were.
Mikael Wiehe sounds exactly like David Byrne on the Little Creatures song “Stay Up Late” – that demented gnarly nasal voice Byrne uses is Wiehe’s regular singing voice. While De Engligas Alle (Desolation Row) fits into the post-punk mould there are quite a few different styles across the album. Wiehe & Co sound like The English Beat on “All I Really Want To Do,” early OMD on “The Wicked Messenger,” and early Eurythmics on “Desolation Row.” In fact the Eurythmics’s 1984 isn’t a bad point of reference for the dystopian vibe of the whole album.
The best thing is that the spiky vocals, early 80s keyboard effects, agitated rhythms and echoic shards of post-punk guitar all add up to great alt-pop. Even if the original tune of “Spanish Harlem Incident” seems completely lost under the new style, there’s still a great new melody to take its place. So, the upshot is that I’m going to proclaim this the best foreign language Dylan covers album. Aufray Chante Dylan was good, but this transforms Dylan completely and does it brilliantly. If the singing was in English then I daresay I’d rate it right up there with Coulsen, Dean et al’s Lo And Behold as one of the best Dylan covers albums of all time. Time to punch the clock, Bumstead…
Tattardrottning (Episod I juninatt) (Spanish Harlem Incident)… opens with a hard electronic drum and bass sound, twinkling notes on a midi-keyboard, but all spliced through with sharp stabs of electric guitar, before Wiehe’s vocal comes on all raunchy-mad and determined. The syncopation between vocals and music is great, it all ties together with a funky 80s aesthetic, but a genuinely cool vibe, back when keyboards weren’t quite synths and guitars not quite keytars. As noted above, I’ve tried to hear “Spanish Harlem Incident” in here but not really succeeding. Doesn’t matter too much. Those screechy guitars keep bursting open among the insistent agit-pop rhythm; the whole thing maintains a high tension feel, until it all breaks down in the chorus into something quite poppy. Awesome opener.
Vi later oss inte besegras (The Times They Are A-Changin’)… okay, so just as I said there were no synths here, this has a shimmery icy synth hovering in the background, but it’s tastefully done. The music on all of these is really inventive, by which I mean, that ‘let’s see what we can do within minimal proscribed parameters’ kind of inventive. Structurally this is quite similar to the first track. Another high tension keyboard/drum/stabbed guitar rhythm and a neat vocal melody. You can only just tell what song this is at the chorus, but it hardly matters. In the instrumental break there’s some wicked … um … I don’t know – electric accordion? Some groovy warbly keyboards. The main beat is held together by one repeatedly bashed snare drum on the 4/4. Wiehe’s slightly anarchic, earnest vocal mixes beautifully into the music, and again there’s that syncopation that makes this totally danceable. Wiehe even starts “nah nah nahing” in the background, and I remain convinced his main vocal influence is David Byrne.
Allt det handlar om for mej (All I Really Want To Do)… brings the straight-ahead pop with an almost but not quite ska rhythm, but with a similar choppy syncopation between guitars, vocals, bouncy bass line and poppity drums. Of all the tracks this probably comes the closest to sounding like the original. I’ve never enjoyed covers of this song all that much, but this one is brilliant. I can’t stress how perfect Wiehe’s vocals are, how well they go together with the pop punk vibe. It’s the screechy noise criss-crossing the background rhythms that always keep these songs just on the right side of hip.
Jag omkar emigranterna (I Pity The Poor Immigrant)… is all pounding drums, and doomy guitar chords for five seconds, before kicking into a running rhythm (reminiscent of Bryan Adam’s “Run To You” but er…much cooler). This is more moody, atmospheric, again that high-pitch synth glissading across the background but the rest of the song is so lean and mean, muscular and skeletal and the lead guitarist never does the same thing twice, always adding improvised riffs here and there – reminds me of Nels Cline on A Ghost Is Born. The drum rhythm is the stand out part of the song though. Awesome stuff.
Min alskade stod infor ratten idag (Percy’s Song)… chugs in like a train pulling into the station, or pulling out, very slow at first. This is quite different. A slow thudding portentous drum beat, background noises that keep up that slow train feel. Dylan’s version was only released officially on Biograph. This is radically different. I don’t know how they’re doing it but there are effects in here that sound like creaky rusty wheels turning, a sampled “ahhh” vocal played on the keyboard. So “Percy’s Song” is all about a musician going to see the judge who’s about to convict his friend for killing several people in a car accident … at least on the surface. “Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind,” is the main refrain in English. Here it sounds like “Ving, ving, venja may ro” although the lyric sheet has it as “Regn, regn, regna mej ro.” Those creaky wheels, the sampled vocals and plodding drumbeat create an otherworldly atmosphere. The Irish ballad feel of the song is still intact, but only just. This is great, one of the best songs here, and again, its so creative, I’ve become quite the fan.
De sorgliga sandebudet (The Wicked Messenger)… is another slow echoic bashed drum, with a staccato rhythm guitar and Wiehe’s gnarly vocal sneer steering a path through them. An icy keyboard line joins, submerged frog-croaky bass sound, and spare, brief, leave-them-wanting-more guitar solos punctuate the doomy vibe. When I first heard this album, I laughed and wasn’t quite convinced it was even a Dylan covers album. This is the kind of thing you want to tell the whole Joy Division/Throbbing Gristle world about. There’s an Arabian kind of winding chord thing thrown in here and there, as though you can imagine the messenger being carried in on a palanquin surrounded by dancers and gold-crowned courtiers. It doesn’t have any obvious climax.
Magganns bar (Maggie’s Farm)… back to the speed and this wickedly scratchy guitar sound, like some kind of blacksmith’s workshop, knocks and chickers, woodblocks, spinning lathes, squeaks and wheels turning, like machinery, which again, is a creative way of representing the idea behind “Maggie’s Farm.” Again, rapid fire staccato guitar parts, all sorts of wild effects chiggering away in and out of the rhythm section, but best of all is those electric guitar harmonics they use to create that scratchy filmic effect. It makes me think of Eraserhead. This is another whose tune is almost-but-not-quite immediately recognizable. When he gets to the chorus, Wiehe ratchets up the insanity in his voice a few notches, and the guitarists do their minimalist, anarchic, freeform solo thing, as the song fades out. Absolutely brilliant.
De ensligas alle (Desolation Row)… is the one that sounds the most like something off the Eurythmics’s 1984. There’s a keyboard part in the rhythm, a kind of electronic bell effect warbling a quick ten note refrain. Add to that a distant rimshot, the two-beat rhythm, a droning, whining guitar noise in the background, and you’ve got yourself futurist dystopian soundscape bar none. Speed is quite slow, handclaps come in, and Wiehe sounds wearier here. In fact, Dan Tillberg’s Karlek Minus Noll album had a similar proto-industrial version of this track, but Wiehe’s is by far the better of the two because of its nicely rendered restraint. Even reminds me of the Cure’s Pornography in places. The use of echo and atmosphere and spare but semi-random electric guitar. Hey, even whistling seems to make it into the song. Wiehe really pushes his chicken-squawk voice into some interesting unselfconscious directions. I usually find it quite hard to listen to Germanic languages in song, but here it really works, and I would say even improves the record. Who needs words when you’ve got musicians being this creative? This version conjures up a totalitarian desolation alley vibe brilliantly.
I can’t praise this album enough. Even the doomier tracks still have good tunes. It sounds exactly like 1982, in the best way possible. I don’t know if it ever sold copies outside of Sweden. It should have. This is the kind of ‘lost classic’ that if someone reissued it now, and gave it good reviews on all the right internet journals you’d sell a few thousand copies straight up. The only thing they’d need to change is that rather unappealing album cover.
Mikael Wiehe was born in 1946 making him 36 at the time of this album. He’s released tonnes of stuff and has kept busy as a musician and political activist right up into the new millennium. Apparently he was also very important in the ‘proggmovement’ – a left-wing, anti-commercial musical movement in Sweden that had its roots in the 60s and its heyday in the 70s. Wiehe has his own website. Google it to find out more, but only if you read Swedish…