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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline

BOB DYLAN: NASHVILLE SKYLINE (1969)

1) Girl From The North Country; 2) Nashville Skyline Rag; 3) To Be Alone With You; 4) I Threw It All Away; 5) Peggy Day; 6) Lay Lady Lay; 7) One More Night; 8) Tell Me That It Isn't True; 9) Country Pie; 10) Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You.

If there ever was any intention behind John Wesley Harding to act as a potent «fan repellent» — and I am almost sure there must have been — it did not work. For a brief moment out there, the people may have been shocked and surprised — what, no rock'n'roll on a Dylan record? and what exactly do all these 19th century outlaws have to do with pushing boundaries and stuff?.. — but give them a few months, no, weeks, and they were back to swooning and praising and deciphering the writing on the wall and covering all those songs like there was no tomorrow. That Jimi Hend­rix swiftly took over ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ is no accident — far more amazing is the fact that he also tried to appropriate ʽDrifter's Escapeʼ, which, technically, was one of the «filler» tracks on JWH. Whatever tricky plan there was, it backfired.

Initiate phase two, then. By early 1969, Bob was back in Nashville, and the general idea must have been that he was all set to give out John Wesley Harding, Vol. 2. What he did instead was put together a much larger band, something like a crowd of about ten people, coming and going — and record an album that, for all it's worth, became probably the least expectable, least «Dylan­esque» listening experience to that point.

«Trouble» begins already with the album cover. This is only the second of Bob's album sleeves where we see him clutching a guitar — the first one, not coincidentally, was the self-titled debut from seven years ago. But this time, there is quite deliberately no subtle mystery on the photo: what we see is pretty much a regular country bumpkin, and what is he doing, really? Tipping his hat to us and smiling? Ever saw Bob Dylan smiling at us before? What is this guy saying — that he actually cares about his audience? Bummer, man. A Bob Dylan who cares about his audience is arguably even worse than Ted Nugent going Democrat. The signs are not good.

Trouble increases as we inspect the album's running length: ten songs, clocking in at less than a measly thirty minutes? What is this, Surfin' Safari? from a guy who used to have trouble restric­ting himself to less than fifty, earning curses from cassette tape owners all around the globe? And the very first song — a remake of ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ? Duetting with Johnny Cash? And then, as you actually put it on — what's up with that new voice of his? What's that supposed to mean — campaigning for grandpa's and grandma's attention?

Back in 1969, when people asked him about it, Bob used to joke that «this is my normal voice, you know», or mystically attribute it to his abandoning smoking. Both statements were gross put-ons (that some people surprisingly fell for) — of course, this new clean croon of his is anything but his normal voice, and every time that he is not paying strict attention, he tends to slip back into the old, well-familiar «sandpaper» style. He had actually explored that sort of singing back in early 1960, while still staying in Minneapolis, before understanding that his natural, «grating» intonations would suit his image of a grizzled folkster much more perfectly. Now it's back — for the purposes of perfecting that warm, friendly, sentimental country mode.

Nashville Skyline is not a great album, because it deliberately limits itself to a formula that pre­cludes greatness. There is no doubt that, with some serious effort put into it, a country album may be inspiring and meaningful, but the idea itself was the opposite — to produce something that, while not being a complete throwaway, would be purposefully devoid of too much meaning and inspiration. Bob Dylan did not want us to think of Nashville Skyline as «great», and we hardly have any choice but to respect that wish and «debase» our reactions appropriately. On the other hand, neither does it mean that we have to concentrate on the throwaway aspect and ridicule the album, as some people continue to do.

One hotly debated topic is whether Bob's unexpected friendliness, sentimentality, and personal charm that he sweats out on the album at an ever-accelerating speed, were «true» or «false» at the time — a topic where it is all too easy to forget that one never really knows, anytime, when Bob is being sincere with us and when he is putting on one of those interchangeable masks. The songs are mostly love songs, with surprisingly accessible and understandable lyrics, that usually express the desire to get next to his loved one (ʽLay Lady Layʼ, ʽTo Be Alone With Youʼ, ʽTonight I'll Be Staying Here With Youʼ), or, occasionally, worry over the possibility of a breakup (ʽTell Me That It Isn't Trueʼ), or lament over an actual breakup — with, get this, the protagonist blaming himself over what has happened (ʽI Threw It All Awayʼ). Bob Dylan accepting the blame for a breakup? Sure must have come a long, long way from the days of ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ... nah, couldn't be, really. Either they have some really good secret genetic engineering facilities out there in Nash­ville, or somebody's a really good actor.

Anyway, historical context aside, Nashville Skyline is what it is — a fun, cozy, likeable little country album, with moderately decent, unoriginal songwriting; a trifle lazy, loose, relaxed, but well thought out playing style; and, on the whole, still a unique atmosphere, because the country lifestyle was anywhere but in Dylan's blood and bones, and even those who hate this particular metamorphosis should be curious enough to see his individualistic take on it. Even the «croon» is still an official Dylan croon — it will drift towards whatever direction the current Dylan will want it to drift, rather than whatever the official Nashville textbook has to prescribe on the subject. Would a professional Nashvillian dare to switch from the cool-collected "she said she would always stay-aa-ee-eeey..." to the absurdly soaring, ridiculously-out-of-range pitch on the ensuing "but I was cruel, I treated her like a fool..."? He wouldn't, and neither, in fact, did any of the non-Nashvillians, from Cher to Yo La Tengo, who would go on to cover the song. So we shouldn't worry that much: behind all the covers, this is still very much a Dylan album.

Which, by the way, is exactly why the first song on here, although I used to like it in the past, has eventually dropped off the favorite list. The idea of a Bob Dylan / Johnny Cash collaboration sounds fantastic in theory, but it couldn't be well realized on practice — in fact, we now know that, having crossed their paths in Nashville, the two recorded a whole bunch of songs (extra­neous covers, Cash originals, and Dylan originals alike), but nothing was deemed suitable for official release. At the very last moment, they settled on ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ, and al­though both Bob's new take on it, in his «crooner» voice, and Johnny's earth-bowel-rumble deli­very both have their individual appeal, these are two entirely different visions — and they mesh together about as well if you tried to overdub, say, Bob's original take on ʽAll Along The Watch­towerʼ on top of the Hendrix tape, and see what happens.

It might have been a fun idea to do a «split» album, where, on Side A, Bob would sing Johnny's songs, and on Side B, Johnny would sing Bob's — coherence and comparison on one circle of vinyl. It is still mildly tolerable when they trade verses — but as soon as it's duet time, cognitive dissonance sets in, and I personally honestly want to strangle both, or, at least, whichever one gets selected through the coin flip. (Generally speaking, most of Bob's duets, be they with Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs, or even Joan Baez, are aurally confusing because he has this obnoxious manner of always taking the ground from under the feet of the «normal» singer at his side).

On the other hand, ʽNashville Skyline Ragʼ, which marks a first (the first completely instrumental number on a Dylan album), is extremely welcome — a fun rollicking tune that gives the major players in Bob's Nashville band a chance to shine, very well planned and executed (Bob Wilson's piano rolls are especially endearing). And all those little bits that seem «fillerish» have their right­ful purpose: ʽCountry Pieʼ has some sharp, almost Robbie Robertson-like lead guitar playing, and is really a snippet that shows quite a bit of that absurdist Basement Tapes spirit ("shake me up that old peach tree, Little Jack Horner's got nothin' on me"); the comically tinged ʽPeggy Dayʼ is so catchy that, in two years' time, it would be stolen by Ray Davies and re-written as ʽHolidayʼ for Muswell Hillbillies; and ʽOne More Nightʼ seems like a subtle, but intentional tribute to Hank Williams (at one point in 1967, there was actually talk of a possibility that Bob would re­cord a whole album of tunes set to lyrics left over from Hank — fortunately, the idea backfired, but Hank had always been a big inspiration to Bob anyway, and writing an original number in Hank's style seemed like the best way to pay the proper respects).

Then, of course, there are the best known songs — ʽI Threw It All Awayʼ, ʽLay Lady Layʼ, ʽTonight I'll Be Staying Here With Youʼ — that do not try to go all the way, but still lodge them­selves in various sensitive areas of the soul. Musically, ʽLay Lady Layʼ is the most lushly velvety of them all, courtesy of the organ / pedal steel combination, and is probably as close as Bob ever came to writing and recording a «sexy» song — of course, real lovers are always expected to be making out to the mystical sounds of ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ (preferably, in a cemetery, too), but for the average Joe, ʽLay Lady Layʼ may, in fact, wobble the same nerves as Al Green. However, on the whole I prefer ʽTonightʼ — as the album's most fully arranged song, and a counterpoint of sorts to John Wesley Harding's ʽI'll Be Your Baby Tonightʼ: that one was lazy and nonchalant, placing the burden of action on the lady ("bring that bottle over here..."), but here, believe it or not, it is the gentleman who is willing and ready to make the effort — first, by throwing his ticket out the window, next, by throwing his suitcase out there, too.

Nashville Skyline is not John Wesley Harding. It does not crawl under the skin — to an extent, it is so shamelessly «normal» that one begins looking for hidden meanings almost instinctively, as if they are absolutely, inavoidably supposed to be there. But they aren't. If this weren't a Dylan album, if it were recorded in 1969 by some no-name from Nashville, it probably wouldn't have caused much of a stir — and it would be a pity, because, even though accepting all of the super­ficial trappings of contemporary country music, this is not a «generic» country album: first and foremost, it is a certain stage in the evolution of a singer-songwriter, be it an initial, middle, or final stage. And we are certainly under no obligation of believing that seemingly friendly smile on the album sleeve (by this time, we should be aware enough of Dylan so as not to put our sin­cere trust in anything he does), but that should not preclude us from allowing ourselves to be charmed by it, all the same. Thumbs up, by all means.

Check "Nashville Skyline" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Nashville Skyline" (MP3) on Amazon

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. "earning curses from cassette tape owners all around the globe?"
    No problem - there were tapes of 60 minutes back then. For instance The Song Remains the Same fitted excellently.
    An album of 27 minutes like this one was no problem either - just one side or the two sides of a 30 minutes cassette.
    No - albums of sligthly more than 30 minutes, those were curse inducing, like Rainbow Rising. And Bringing it all back home with sligthly more than 47 minutes.
    Yup, I have done some advanced calculation as teenager when taping albums I didn't want to buy.

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  3. If this album was meant to alienate fans of his previous work it did the trick for me though "Lay Lady Lay" does have a certain charm. Things were never the same from this point on.

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    1. C´mon, how can you say it? This album is pretty awesome and shows another side of Bob Dylan. After it, he recorded great albums such as Blood On The Tracks and Desire. Please, listen to all of his records and then you will have another opinion about his career.

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  4. does it make a person less talented because they can do a number of styles well?

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  5. I feel almost positive this album was originally going to be even shorter and more straightforward by lacking the first two tracks and was supposed to start with To be Alone With You ("Is it rolling Bob?"), but someone at Columbia thought, no one is going to buy this short album of straight country songs, even from Dylan, so what was supposed to be a Girl From North Country/Nashville Skyline Rag A-side/B-side single was tacked on to the front of the album, even though those two don't really fit in with any of the rest of the album. (I find listening to the album works best if you start it on track 3.)

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