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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bob Dylan: New Morning

BOB DYLAN: NEW MORNING (1970)

1) If Not For You; 2) Day Of The Locusts; 3) Time Passes Slowly; 4) Went To See The Gypsy; 5) Winterlude; 6) If Dogs Run Free; 7) New Morning; 8) Sign On The Window; 9) One More Weekend; 10) The Man In Me; 11) Three Angels; 12) Father Of Night.

The fact that New Morning came out just four months after Self Portrait is frequently brought up as an argument that the album was an «appeasement» for critics and fans alike — that Bob's huge ego simply could not stand the rotten-tomato treatment of his latest record, and so New Morning was rushed out, first and foremost, in order to wipe out the bad memories. As could be expected, Dylan himself denied this; and, likewise, there are strong counterarguments — for in­stance, the bulk of the album was recorded over the first five days of June 1970, whereas Self-Portrait itself was only released commercially on June 8.

But then again, it sure does seem that way. Is it a coincidence, after all, that 1970 was the only year, past-1965, in which Bob would release two albums rather than one? Is it a coincidence that Self-Portrait was all covers and this one was all originals? Is it a coincidence that there are al­most no signs of the «clean» crooning style of Nashville Skyline / Self-Portrait, as Bob is get­ting back to the tried and true? I don't think so. I think that there was an explicit goal here — to get that damn Rolling Stone to renege on its aggression, and wrench that precious «we've got Dylan back!» tag out of it. Although I'm not sure Bob himself would confess to that in the pre­sence of God Almighty, provided he does hold a ticket to Heaven after all.

For all I know, New Morning does not give us back «our» Dylan, since he was there all the way on Self-Portrait. But it does open him up from yet another, previously unknown side — that of a quiet, relatively unassuming, relatively undemanding family man, quite content to enjoy the little things and not force any diatribes, proclamations, predictions, sermons, or hallucinatory visions on the world at large. Well, maybe just a few, every once in a while. For old times' sake.

The fact is that, throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, Dylan really was a family man. Like a good, traditional Jewish father, he already had four kids, and with the birth of Jakob in 1969, he found himself pleased to take a detour in the world of diapers (either that, or he knew how important it was for the frontman of The Wallflowers to be hugged and pampered on a 24-hour basis). Serenity was unstable from the beginning, and did not last for long, but a strong ray of it is evident all over New Morning — making it, as the title also suggests, the sunniest and homeliest of all Dylan records, so that it is probably best played on the porch of your country house, on a hot summer day when you have nothing else to do. Heck, I am writing this review right now — in my 7th floor apartment, on a cold autumn day when I have tons of stuff to do, and I can still put myself in that mood just by pushing play. That's how strong the mood is.

Stuck between Bob's own rendition of ʽIf Not For Youʼ and George Harrison's vision of it on All Things Must Pass, I will take George — who found the song a place in his awesome religious experience and turned it into a thing of, like, transcendental beauty. Dylan's original, in compari­son, is humble and homely, no wall of sound, no soaring slide passages, and even a tempo that seems a little too rushed, giving no time for the sentiments to complete the blow to one's head. But even so, there is a feeling that this might be the first thoroughly «sincere», unveiled, intentio­nally simplistic-sounding (both lyrically and musically) love song he'd ever put on record — not the cloudy, hip-o, intellectualistic tapestries on Blonde On Blonde, some of which may or may not be about love, but who can really tell; not the «look-at-me-I-sing-love-songs-like-a-country-pro» crooner stuff on Nashville Skyline; no, just an old-fashioned catchy love song, with the heart on the sleeve represented by the subtle vibraphone touch. Surely it wasn't by chance that, of all the new Dylan songs Harrison had heard while jamming with him in May 1970, it was ʽIf Not For Youʼ and no other that he latched on so quickly — only on very, very rare occasions does Bob come up with a great love song.

There is a lot of piano on the album: Bob himself places the ivory keys at the center of six of the songs, and, where extra sophistication is required, Al Kooper contributes his services — particu­larly impressive on ʽIf Dogs Run Freeʼ, a rare, if not only, Dylan incursion into the world of late night cool jazz, reciting beat poetry over Al's sprinkly arpeggios, Maeretha Stewart's scat vo­cals in the background, and an overall atmosphere that would seem more appropriate for 1955 than for 1970, but then, why refuse when you can indulge your «inner family man» by going retro and satisfy your «try anything once» life principle at the same time? The good news is, it all works out — once you realize that the key word is ʽfreeʼ, it all falls in place (or out of place, which is pretty much the same thing here).

The other Kooper-led song is ʽThe Man In Meʼ, which Al liked so much as to appropriate it for his own catalog (1972's Possible Projection Of The Future), but this is where it becomes ob­vious that Al Kooper is no George Harrison — his version dispensed with the piano and replaced it with solemn-sounding organ, needlessly serious-ifying the mood. It also cut out the "la-la-la"s which are totally essential to the song, giving it a little bit of healthy idiot flair to compensate for the metaphysical heaviness of the refrain ("takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me" — could an apology for one's male-chauvinistic excesses in the past be worded in a better way?). I think it was the "la-la-la"s and little else that prompted the Cohens to include the song in the Big Lebowski soundtrack — although, come to think of it, New Morning in its entirety is the most Lebowski-compatible album Dylan had ever recorded in his life.

Dividing the songs into «high-» and «lowlights» on New Morning is impossible due to the very conception of the album. On John Wesley Harding, there was a very clear demarcating line be­tween songs like ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ (epic!) and ʽDown Along The Coveʼ (whee, groovy!). As for New Morning, well, on one hand, it is true that some of the tunes explore gran­der themes than others. ʽThree Angelsʼ, with its gospel organ and allegoric story about the world failing to notice the angels with their horns, is one; ʽSign On The Windowʼ, exploring loneliness and escape from it in the possible joys of domestic bliss (sort of an «Eleanor Rigby Got Married» from a Dylan perspective), is another; ʽFather Of Nightʼ, concluding the album in brief snippet fashion, is a reworking of a Jewish prayer.

But on the other hand, none of these songs could have ever been properly reworked into blazing Jimi Hendrix anthems — they simply represent occasional dips into pensiveness and solemnity on a generally light-hearted, «simple man» type of daily schedule. Here we celebrate the arrival of yet another 24-hour cycle with the title track, sung deliciously out-of-tune (the only thing lack­ing is Keith Richards on background vocals), but with all the soul it takes. There we do a bit of barroom blues, pulled by the hair out of «generic» mode like only Dylan can — by re-defining the concept of «nag­ging» with the repetitive song title. Here we send up Princeton University, who had the nerve to present Dylan with an honorary degree when he least needed it (ʽDay Of The Locustsʼ, somehow still managing to piano-celebrate the innocence of nature in between all the sneering — and if it were up to me, I would probably rename some part of the Princeton campus to «The Black Hills Of Dakota», if only to take revenge on the songwriter). There we just rollick along to an unassuming, but utterly non-Nashvillian all the same, country waltz (ʽWinter­ludeʼ), and so on. All soft, all cozy, lazy, tender, and sarcastic at once.

New Morning essentially concludes the third phase in Dylan's career — the «country years», some might call it, although «the campfire years» or «the log cabin years» seem much more to my liking. Subsequently, his musical ascetism would reach its peak and culminate in abandoning music altogether for a couple of years, except for a few unproductive sessions and a rare gig for George's Bangla Desh concert — which he shared, surprisingly enough, with yet another recluse: Clapton, too, basically just locked himself up in 1971-72. Dylan's existence, fortunately, was less drug-dependent, but somehow I think that these pauses were not entirely coincidental: both Bob and Eric represented the «Sixties' survivor» stereotype — «The Guy Who Could Have Been The Next Jimi Hendrix / Jim Morrison / Brian Jones», etc. — and, probably, both of them needed to take some time off, if only to shake off the ghosts of the past and clean themselves up, spiritually even more than physically, for what the future had in store.

That said, I must note that, had New Morning turned out to be Dylan's swan song for any reason, it would have enjoyed an even stronger reputation than it does today — I mean, a record that starts out with one of the man's sincerest, tenderest, simplest, catchiest love songs, and ends with an equally light, but moving take on a Jewish prayer? That certainly qualifies as some sort of Let It Be, if you ask me. And just imagine everyone salivating at the idea of the man being taken away from us just as he finally got to admit that "this must be the day that all of my dreams come true..." — can you not feel the Faustian grandeur already? Not even John Lennon and Double Fantasy would have anything on this. Anyway, thumbs up all the same — for all we know, Bob Dylan's talents may extend to the ability of terminating and resuscitating his own life at will, so he is entitled to at least nine proper swan songs, or something like that.

Check "New Morning" (CD) on Amazon
Check "New Morning" (MP3) on Amazon

6 comments:

  1. Out of curiosity, what are these other swan songs? ...Is Blonde on Blonde one of them (after all, that's the closest he's gotten to dying)?

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    1. Either of his electric trilogy would have made quite evocative swan songs, especially considering their respective last songs.

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  2. did you miss mentioning the title track.the feel of which kinda encapsulates the whole time snapshot..a beauty of a song.

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  3. Great review, great album, but I really have to disagree with you on "If Not For You". Dylan's version bounces with sprightly joy whereas Harrison's draaaaaaaaaaaags it out at too slow a pace.

    All a matter of personal taste though!

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  4. Great review! I also prefer Harrison's cover of If not for you, because it is a perfect blend of the best of Dylan + the best of the Beatles, so for sure a great song. I also love the last song. I have never understood anything to Dylan's religious creed, though - but it does not matter much, after all.

    Yet, I have a question : Dylan rarely comes up with sincere beautiful love songs, but what about Blood On The Tracks ? I cannot wait to read your review of it.

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  5. I've often wondered if this wasn't intended to be Bob's final album before retiring to raise his kids. The lyrics certainly suggest that was the intent. I wonder if his marriage hadn't dissolved leading him to record Blood on Tracks, would we have ever seen another Dylan record post New Morning?

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