Vargen – Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan – Album Review
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew this day would come.
I think it’s natural for people to feel awkward about their shortcomings…and I’m no exception to that when they pop up. After 2000+ reviews written by yours truly here at the pages and over twenty-plus years in the independent journalism racket…you’d think I’d just be comfortable in doing what I do. I’ve made comparisons on music from Mozart to Nine Inch Nails, the 13th Floor Elevators to Aphex Twin – and to be truthful, there have been very few times where I’ve felt outside of my normal lane when it comes to anything that seems to flow through my speakers. Like many writers out there, I experience those moments where I feel like a fraudster when I’m able to write about what comes so naturally to me; it’s like I’ve pulled one over on the world and I’ve just been waiting for someone to figure it all out.
Today might be that day…
For you see dear readers, dear friends…we’re all a product of our environments in some way, shape, or form – and I believe this very much applies to what we end up listening to in life later on once we’ve grown up & left the nest. Being the son of a musician, I was raised on just about every possible kind of music you can think of, which is likely why I listen to anything/everything today. I was raised with the television off, and the stereo system on at all times. From the mainstream to the obscure, my brain absorbed everything I could get my ears around as I grew up; but still, at the end of the day, was often subjected to music that wasn’t my own choice, which ended up expanding my horizons in every conceivable way. Almost every conceivable way, that is.
Except the Bobs…
For some reason unbeknownst to me, my father never played Bob Dylan and rarely if ever, played Bob Marley that I can recall; as a result, I grew up with two massive holes in my music knowledge that run embarrassingly deep. Sure there were others, but I managed to fill in most of the gaps that my old man had missed while I was growing up & listening to everything I could. Everything except the Bobs. I’ve never figured out exactly why that is…I have immense respect for both, yet I’ve truly heard so very little by either of’em. So in the case of trying to evaluate the new album by Sweden’s Vargen…you can tell I’m up against it here…this is me as a fish out of water just trying to swim – because this entire record is built of Bob Dylan cover songs. I couldn’t tell ya what the originals sound like with the exception of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” from what I can see in the set-list; believe it or not folks, the vast majority of the songs on this album are completely new to me, even though they’ve been around for years.
It’s shameful. I know, I know.
Hopefully, I push play on Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan by Vargen & get myself educated, finally.
Or hopefully, I end up with a ton of scenarios where I’ll hear a song like the opening track “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and realize I actually do know more of Dylan’s music than I think I do. I’m certainly familiar with the first cut on Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan, and Vargen’s version made me instantly remember just how much I really do love this song from Dylan’s storied & legendary catalog. Maybe I didn’t even know it was Bob before…I might have to end up admitting all kinds of stuff like this in this review; I honestly don’t know how the credits would have escaped me, but I do know that I love what Vargen has done with such an exceptionally beautiful song. Captivating & mesmerizing in all the right ways…I love the hollowness that accompanies the sound & melody of this song so very, very much – it’s like the echo of a love-letter you can hear bouncing from the back of your mind straight into your heart. Listen to the emotion in the vocals and guitar of this tune will ya? Vargen’s done a truly stunning job right from the get-go, instantly delivering a huge highlight in this set of covers with their spectacularly serene version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” You’ve already read that my knowledge in all-things-Dylan is incredibly deficient; the best compliment I can pay to Vargen here is that they’ve not only created a brilliantly compelling and downright perfect cover of this song – this is the kind of performance that has all the right ingredients to make me 100% interested in everything else to come. I will say this – Vargen clearly puts their hearts & souls into the songs on this record and their passionate performances go on to ring true throughout this whole set – but this first cut continually remained a huge highlight for myself personally. I’m beyond impressed with how this album starts out.
Born out of the vision of Reine Johansson – here’s some background info you should know that I’ve got here in my notes… When it came to the music of Vargen, he had this to say: “I decided to start this solo/Music collective Project in 2016. Vargen translates as ‘The Wolf’ in Swedish, suits the project well as I can perform both as a lonewolf or with the whole band/pack.” There are a great many things I love about the second cut “I Threw It All Away” that speak strongly on behalf of both what Reine brings to the music of Vargen on his own, and definitely on behalf of what he can achieve with the full band as well. All-in-all, I think they’ve brought a real degree of accessibility to a lot of Dylan’s music here and found a way to add just that tiny bit more smoothness I think many of us have always longed for in his music as much as we’ve appreciated Bob’s own cadence. Vocally, “I Threw It All Away” is a fantastically subtle song sung with the maximum strength of conviction; Vargen manages to accentuate what makes a track like this as timeless as it truly is. The backing vocals are perfection, but so too is the lead – and in behind it all, you’ll find the music never misses a single beat…it remains a subtle complement to what you’ll hear in the magic from the microphone, but moments like around the 1:35 mark’s solo still end up shining and standing out just as they should with such golden tones. Like a great many tunes on this record, this wasn’t a song I was familiar with beforehand…and I gotta say, this second track already confirmed to my ears that Vargen was the right band to handle such extraordinarily revered material. If you can listen to “I Threw It All Away” and come to any other conclusion, I’d be completely surprised – I felt like Vargen captivated & charmed us, hitting the nail right on the head with their version of this cut.
I think for a person that’s largely found outside of Dylan’s music like I most typically would be, will probably respond to a lot of the songs on this record that prominently feature Mia Rosengren in the lead role, like you’ll find on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” That’s no knock against Reine – I felt the same way when Nirvana songs were covered professionally for the first time by the surviving members of the original band; it actually ended up making the first experience a lot more comfortable in choosing to have an all-female lineup sing at their Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame induction performance…it created a distance between what we already knew we loved, and opened-up the potential for what the songs could still be. I think Mia’s got an excellent voice and she uses it beautifully throughout this record, in particular, you’ll notice it when she steps out of the background and into the spotlight like she does on the opening track, here with “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and literally any time she gets the opportunity to do so later on. She’s got a wonderful voice and adds a stunning Mazzy Star-like haze of melody that hits the mark every time; she’s got a similar slight rasp at the edge of her voice that breaks beautifully & similar to masters of sincerity like singer like Sarah Bettens. Måns Broman does a wonderful job keeping the beat steady on the drums throughout the lineup of songs on this record and adds a genuinely quaint dimension to the sound of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” as well. Highly inviting all around – Vargen puts a ton of personality on display throughout this entire performance from the music to the microphone – you couldn’t miss it. From the charming piano & guitar tones trading space throughout the song, to the vocals that nestle right into the thick of the melody – you’ve gotta give Vargen real credit here for bringing a sweetness to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” that Dylan’s natural sound doesn’t contain and really making this their own.
Reine does a supremely awesome job all throughout Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan. You’ll hear the comparisons between his vocals and Dylan’s instantly on display on songs like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at the very beginning, and certainly on songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” When it comes to the latter tune, you’ll find one of the most engaging, sweet, and charismatic performances on the entire record with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Again, I might be somewhat of a stranger to Dylan’s music, sure – but I’m no stranger at all to a successful endeavor, and that’s exactly what this cover sounds like. You know how you hear a song sometimes and it sounds like the band is wearing a whole second skin that seems to completely fit them? Well then, there ya go – that’s exactly what you’ll discover on this highly catchy cut from Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan – everything about this works. Listen to the sparkle & shine of the guitars on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” will ya? Or how about how insanely perfect the whistling ends up being? Reine gives you an inspired performance through his vocals and that added edge of wisdom in his tone of voice really pulls you in to listen to every word, just like the legend that inspired him to create this record to begin with always does. You end up listening so intently to these tunes like they’re a mystery to be solved, and that’s because of the remarkable way that Vargen has approached these covers and kept the focus just as much on the lyrics of Dylan as they do with the music they’ve made supporting it all.
While I might have been searching for something to hang onto and some kind of familiarity as I began this journey, I came to realize that perhaps the less I knew, the better. So many of these songs in this lineup were like an all-new experience to me…and hearing Vargen set the standards for what these songs could be like so far has been nothing short of excellent. Essentially, what I’m saying is, Vargen can be completely trusted to entertain you, remain respectful of the original tunes, and still bring their own sound, depth, and dimensions to each song in a way that gives it their own stamp & twist on it all. Ultra-serious vibes like “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” might be one of those tunes that not everyone out there expected to find in this lineup…and just wait til you hear how incredible it turned out! All-in-all, I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying this was one of my absolute favorites from this record – Vargen puts an award-worthy performance into this song as far as my ears are concerned. Listen to the sheer amount of flavor, color, and character in the music & the depth of the vocal melody that drives “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” – because it should honestly blow your mind! The best way I can put it, is that through the way they play this tune – and the sheer fact that this is one of the many cuts from Dylan’s catalog that they chose to perform – it all stacks up…it all tells you that this band understands their own sound & capabilities, and what they would be able to bring to these songs long before they ever even pushed record. You choose songs like “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” not as an artist or band looking to cover just the hits – you feel me? You choose songs like this one when you have real knowledge & respect for the artist or band you’re covering, which gives it an audibly tributary dimension as well…you can tell Vargen is built of authentically sincere fans by how they approached this set-list of songs on Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan & what they’ve chosen to play.
When I hear a song like “Abandoned Love,” I almost have to smile a little in reaction to my own faults and lack of knowledge on key Bobs throughout music’s history…because c’mon – if Dylan really sounded like this all along, wouldn’t I have just been listening without any hesitation this whole time? This cut is pretty much right up my alley here…Dylan’s writing, but almost a somewhat livelier or most assured performance here with the versatility & chilled-cool of a Petty/Bowie leading the way this time around. Listen to the extremely clever way the backing vocals are placed into this song…listen to how the guitar notes chime-in along the way with purpose & personality; for a song about “Abandoned Love,” you’ll likely be surprised by just how much of a fun & engaging cut this becomes overall. In my opinion, it’s one of the tunes you probably wouldn’t see coming…and especially after the serious weight just experienced prior in “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” – “Abandoned Love” is much more geared towards the masses with a much higher degree of accessibility than typical of most Dylan songs. Bassist Jan Lundin plays with controlled professionalism & subtle restraint, keeping the rhythm in-check with an insightfully well-played role in this tune that has everything underneath the shiny surface of the melody…and Dan Kristensen has been making true magic happen every single time you hear a guitar chord, note, or tone show up on this whole record as you listen – “Abandoned Love” stays true to that. Reine should be extremely proud of what he & his crew have pulled off on Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan – it takes a band as tight as this, with as much passion for the material as they clearly have, to break through any existing stigmas or bias towards the original artist & hear these songs in the all-new light these performances shine with. So kudos to Vargen – they’ve really reached me personally with what they’ve put into this record, and I’ve been listening to Dylan’s tunes with newfound appreciation. One of my favorite solo moments happens right towards the end of this tune, with the guitars of Kristensen lighting-up the very final seconds of “Abandoned Love” like he’s adding the cherry on top.
“It Ain’t Me, Babe” is without question one of my favorite tracks on this record when it comes to what I love to hear personally. Let me tell ya folks…that’s a lot of what listening to this album comes down to – personal taste – you’ll be hard pressed to find any kind of flaws in the performances, if any actually exist at all, so it really becomes a matter of which songs you like, and which songs you love. Vargen’s done a remarkable job in handling this material, and they play it all with sincere passion and genuine respect for the originals; when you’re considering the results of a cover album, of course being invested in the music makes a difference – and you can hear the love for Dylan’s music stamped all over this record. All that being said, I think this particular track actually ends up having a ton in common with the current Indie/Folk/Pop scene and many of the bands I love from those genres from The Submarines, to Azure Ray, to K’s Choice, and everything in between. In that respect, I’d probably be taking a long look at “It Ain’t Me, Babe” as a potential song to be put out there as the gateway into this record…you can hear a ton of crossover sound at work here, and that always works to your advantage when selecting a single. Timeless tunes, all these songs most certainly are – but the added relevance of a more current sound within the scene will likely lead “It Ain’t Me, Babe” to establish a vibrant connection to many listeners out there all around the world that are dialed right into vibes like these in what they normally listen to. Consider me one of’em, and proud to be so – I think Vargen brings the beauty of the melody in “It Ain’t Me, Babe” to a stunning shine; it takes a different direction than the majority of the songs on this album do and gives Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan yet another avenue of sound for people to enjoy.
With the sliding guitars of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” beautifully leading the way, you’ll likely find the duet between Reine and Mia here is absolutely one of their most successful. Which…I mean…let’s face facts – that’s saying something at this point, because they’ve pretty much been together on the microphone throughout the majority of these songs so far, if not all of them in some way – and they sound spectacularly sweet in singing together, every single time. BUT! “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” really moves at a mesmerizing melodic pace where you can really appreciate just how well their voices complement each other…and sometimes that can make all the difference in the lasting of an impact. Gorgeous performance from Vargen on “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” – this cover is bound to invade a whole lotta hearts, minds, and playlists out there – and rightfully so. Mia, is again, very reminiscent of Sarah Bettens to my ears with the way she sings this song…and that’s keeping the finest of company in my opinion; that’s one of my all-time favorite singers personally – so you’ll get no objections from me in making that comparison whatsoever. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” has the space & pace to really allow the poetry of Dylan’s words to reach your ears without obstruction; the serenity & solace at the heart of this song is unmistakable in the way Vargen performs this. Reine supports Mia’s vocals brilliantly – I’ve said it before already by now I’m sure, but I’ll say it again – both of their voices combined are pure magic and truly one of the best pairings you’ll find out there in the scene right now, in any genre. In terms of relevance…you might be hard pressed to find a song that applies more to the right here & now of what we’re all currently experiencing together in our worldwide quarantine than “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.”
“One Too Many Mornings” sounds like Folk music. Wait…that sounds a little bit obvious now that I’m reading that back…let me clarify. When you open the dictionary to the core definition of Folk music, this cover song starts to play in the background automatically as the prime example – how about that? Loved the way the guitar sounds in this song, and I loved the way that Mia sings it with such compelling emotion behind every single word – she puts in another noteworthy performance that is laced with stunning melody you can’t ignore. I also absolutely love the harmonica on this tune as well, in addition to the overall quaintness and stellar mix of inviting, humble, and sweet sound to be found throughout the entire song. I suspect “One Too Many Mornings” with its gentle demeanor might have to fight a bit harder to get some attention in this lineup of compelling cuts…but if you dig delicate & gentle, tenderized & heartfelt tunes…there ain’t no reason I can think of that’d keep you from loving this track. Songs don’t need to possess all kinds of flashy hooks to gain your approval…and in their essence, that’s really always what Dylan’s tunes were about…unpolished, raw…but incredibly real, observant, & poetic instead. Vargen has a wonderful way of smoothing out Bob’s tunes without damaging the integrity of the originals whatsoever; if anything, songs like “One Too Many Mornings” prove these tunes still have so much more potential to be discovered. I’m sure Vargen would agree; we’ll all be listening to new aspects of Dylan’s genius revealed throughout different approaches, styles, and cover versions of his material for decades & decades to come. That’s the effect of truly amazing songwriting – it can travel to all kinds of different artists and they can all find something totally different about what made the original amazing to begin with, and through their own version, shine on a light on what that is for them that made it all connect when they were listening. So not only do you get to hear a whole new version, but if you’re really listening, you also begin to understand and respect what a band like Vargen really gets out of listening to Dylan & playing his songs. It’s like extra insight by proxy when you really listen.
It would be super-tough to not like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – and if I’m being truthful, I don’t know if I can actually recall ever hearing a version of this song that I didn’t absolutely love. This cover is no exception to that standard or rule – “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” has always been an immaculate example of how an extremely well-written song can translate from genre to genre, style to style, and somehow always hit a home run…and that’s because it’s truly bulletproof songwriting. Chances are, with it being what’s arguably recognized as Dylan’s biggest or most recognized hit, that listeners out there are going to find themselves automatically attached to the brilliant performance Vargen puts in almost by default – but make no mistake, they earn your attention with what they bring to it. As much as I expected I’d like or love the version here by Vargen – which I did, both – it also allowed me to kind of mentally chill-out for a second and appreciate the stellar production that’s been present throughout the entire album. I wouldn’t change a single thing when it comes to the sound of how these songs have come out – and ultimately, somewhere along the way, that always factors in to the longevity of a record and how much we’ll spin it in the future. Vargen’s not only rounded-out & smoothed many over these Dylan melodies over in all the right ways through their own performances, but you’ll hear it in the clarity of the songs and the production as well. To me & my ears, that really gives us as listeners the opportunity to fully absorb the poetry, melody, and immaculate harmony that shows up throughout this lineup of songs on Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan, and you’ll definitely appreciate that in this cover of his most monumental hit. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is the textbook definition of timeless writing.
Ending the record on the playful bounce of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and the contrast of serious lyricism that comes along with it – Vargen made a great choice by having this track finish off the set and vibrantly come to life again in the last opportunity to do so in the one spot left after “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The piano from Zacharias Sjöberg is absolutely outstanding here, and the harmonica makes another remarkable appearance at the end to bring it all home with “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – the vocals from Reine also have that spark of inspiration your ears wanna hear. It finishes the record with style, flair, and finesse; I’m probably always going to advocate more strongly on behalf of moodier & melodic tunes like “I Threw It All Away,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” or “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” personally, because that’s the kind of sound/style combo that appeals to me. But having said that, there’s no faults to be found throughout the entire lineup of songs on Love/Leave – 11 Songs Of Bob Dylan and the execution all-around deserves serious accolades and a whole round of high-fives; any one of these performances or songs could verifiably be your favorite one, and you’d be fully justified with your selection because Vargen has clearly put maximum effort into every single tune you’ll hear. I’m impressed…very impressed really…they’ve got me hearing Bob’s music with a much more open mind through their approach to these songs. True commitment, passion, and respect for the original material leads the way here for sure – and with the talent in Vargen, they’ve really pulled off an ambitious record that’s undeniably entertaining and 100% loaded with memorable performances, perfectly played.
So I suppose, as it turns out, this Bob Dylan chap just might have been onto something after all.
I appreciate the education Vargen – and I appreciate the incredible effort you’ve put into every single one of these thoughtful, tributary covers you’ve created.
Find out more about Vargen at their official homepage at: https://vargen.net