When a singer-songwriter gets touted as the "Next Dylan," their usual reaction is to duck and run for cover. Not Bobby Long. The 24-year-old British tenor and acoustic-guitar picker cheerfully admits that Dylan is one of his favorite artists. He admits that he wrote his senior thesis at the London Metropolitan University on America's '60s folk revival. He admits that he bought his big Gibson acoustic guitar because it resembles the one Dylan held on the cover of Nashville Skyline. He even broods over "going electric" on his first full-length album, February's A Winter Tale.
One has to admire such honesty after so many Next Dylans have hedged and denied the obvious. Long must figure it's better being compared to an aging folk legend than to a vampire. After all, his reputation as a Next Dylan is overshadowed in some quarters by his status as the lyricist for Edward Cullen, Robert Pattinson's character in Twilight. On the film's 2008 soundtrack, Pattinson sings "Let Me Sign," a song co-written by his then-obscure pals in London's folk underground, Long and Marcus Foster.
More than a few people wondered which way Long's full-length debut — produced by Liam Watson, who worked on The White Stripes' Elephant, and released by Dave Matthews' label ATO — would lean: Dylan or Cullen? Well, if Bob Dylan had played Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi, on HBO's True Blood — not an implausible notion — he might have sung songs very much like those on A Winter Tale. When Long describes how a spurned lover's "blood dripped to the ground," how the spurner dreams of lying next to her ex in a coffin "in the rubble and the soil," how a frustrated lover has "no shadow at my side," how another is "dead and done," and how a soldier is "pulling out the corpse," it's easy to imagine Dylan as Edgington singing the same lines with a 19th-century suit, a pencil mustache and a froggy croak.
Or maybe not. One quality Dylan and Edgington conspicuously share is a sly sense of humor — something that Long and Cullen clearly lack. Long's latest songs seem inspired more by Dylan's 1966 surrealist folk-rock than by Dylan's 1963 folkie commentary, and that leads Long into humorless incoherency: "Thirst shreds the ballast cold and shows the olden times / I'm bold and sorrow thrown into the day, into the barrels of the sun," he sings on the title track, with an overwrought arrangement to match. Even tracks as strong as the World War I soldier's song "Two Years Old" and the post-affair revenge number "Who Have You Been Loving" contribute to the disc's melancholy earnestness. Yes, Long's tenor is much handsomer than Dylan's ever was, but that only gets one so far.
Long, predicted by many critics to move from buzz act to star this year, grew up in the village of Calne on England's North Wessex downs. He didn't pick up the guitar until he was 17, but soon went through a short phase of Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine covers before quickly falling in love with '60s folk. Upon graduating from university in 2008, he hit the road as a full-time troubadour, making pilgrimages to New York, Boston and Nashville to see the clubs and studios where the folk heroes of his senior thesis had once trod the earth.
Greenwich Village's Bitter End, Cambridge's Club Passim and The Ryman may seem like shrines now, but in their prime they ricocheted with raucous laughter, some of it sparked by Dylan's droll imitations of Charlie Chaplin and Lord Buckley. This is the lesson that most Next Dylans never quite get — that the original Dylan could never have reinvented popular music if he hadn't been able to laugh at himself. Until Long learns how to become "younger than that now," he'll never be the Next Long, much less the Next Dylan. One new song suggests he may finally be understanding this. "Being a Mockingbird" is an enchanting, lighthearted waltz, but it delivers the disc's most telling confession: "I gave up myself to the heckles / I admit I love my romances."