BOB DYLAN: DESIRE (1976)
1) Hurricane; 2) Isis; 3) Mozambique; 4) One More Cup Of Coffee; 5) Oh Sister; 6) Joey; 7) Romance In Durango; 8) Black Diamond Bay; 9) Sara.
If Blood On The Tracks were Dylan's «silver-age» Freewheelin', then Desire would be his silver-age Blonde On Blonde. Recorded right before the first leg of the famous «Rolling Thunder Revue» tour and officially released in the short interim between it and the less warmly received second leg of the tour, Desire was seriously messy, a little crazy, vastly adventurous, experimental, and, most importantly, inspired. If, ever since, it has been sentenced to the tortuous fate of forever living in the shadows of its much more lauded elder brother, this is still no excuse for ignoring the younger brother. He may be a tad clownish, but he's an intelligent clown all the same.
In fact, Desire is that particular album where ʽLily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Heartsʼ could have been transplanted to perfect effect, let alone the fact that, even without it, Desire still runs over 50 minutes. It is very much «story-based», partly through the influence of the playwright Jacques Levy, whom Dylan had unexpectedly recruited to collaborate with him on the lyrics (!), but partly, I guess, because Bob was so invigorated by the success of Blood On The Tracks that he was all warmed up for adding a little extra dynamics to his output. Wait, a little? This whole album is like a spacetime-warping travelogue — taking the listener from Rubin Carter's jail cell to the pyramids of ʽIsisʼ, from the «sunny skies of Mozambique» to the valley bellow somewhere in the Promised Land, no doubt, from the gangster wars of NYC to the questionable asylum of Durango, Mexico, and even to some mysterious volcanic island about to be submerged in lava. And best of all, it's not just the words that take you to all those places — Desire is arguably the most musically diverse Dylan album of all time.
To be honest, besides Levy, two more people — both of them ladies, for a change — should receive a heavy dose of the credit. One is the then-young country diva Emmylou Harris, who was only something like half a year into a promising career at the time (Pieces Of The Sky, her first major album, had only come out in February '75), but whose formally «background» vocals here really form part of several soaring duets with Bob: be it ʽOh Sisterʼ or ʽOne More Cup Of Coffeeʼ or anything else, the two of them are a much stronger pair than Bob could ever be with Joan Baez (Harris' voice is a little more nasal and raspy compared to Joan's glass-shattering vibrato, so it fits in more naturally with Dylan's preferred way of singing).
Even more important, I think — in fact, it's perfectly well made clear ten seconds into the album — is one of those «genius spontaneity» decisions of Dylan's to enlist a girl who was carrying a violin case as he drove by in his limousine. It's a bizarre story, really: she could have had a shotgun instead of an instrument there as far as we know, but she didn't, and, instead, produced what is probably the finest, sharpest, most emotionally impressive fiddle playing on a Dylan album ever. Nobody knows anything about Scarlet Rivera except that she played on Desire, but she did have a modest solo career afterwards, and some of the tracks from her late 1970s albums (Warner Bros. quickly grabbed her for a couple of LPs, then kicked her back out on the street since they weren't selling) that we can now get easy access to do show the same inventiveness, sharpness, and feel for music. How did the guy spot all that from the window of his limousine?..
Anyway, it is mostly the violin that transforms ʽHurricaneʼ from a spur-of-the-moment political song into a musical masterpiece. You may not give a damn about Rubin Carter and you may not even know two words of the English language, but as long as you know just one — ʽhurricaneʼ — you will be able to spot a subtle, ominous gathering of the clouds in the introduction, and Scarlet's lead violin parts, interspersed with Bob's verses, will be like lightning to the dark, grumbling clobber of the rain played by Bob's guitar and the rhythm section. If you do know the story, well, this is the angriest that Bob ever got since The Times They Are A-Changin', and arguably even angrier: the song kicks, punches, snarls, bites, roars, and definitely calls to action here, not just to shedding tears for lonesome Hattie Caroll. Was Rubin Carter guilty? Was he innocent? Other than the actual people concerned, who really gives a damn these days? Change the names, change the places, change the motives, it has lost none of its basic, brutal force — like some of those politically charged Lennon songs, it's got magic enough to make one's fists clench themselves without effort, as naïve and uninformed as some of the actual statements may be. And the way Bob and Scarlet play and sing off each other, trying to outperform the opposite party, still takes my breath away each time.
Of course, the usual consensus is that ʽHurricaneʼ rules and ʽJoeyʼ sucks, because Rubin Carter was an unjustly accused black sportsman and Joey Gallo was a justly murdered white gangster. (Also because the former runs for eight minutes at a brisk tempo, and the latter crawls on for eleven at a snail's pace, but that's just nitpicking). I do not know the backstory — it is not clear if Bob really had any reason to think of ʽJoeyʼ as a «noble gangster» or if this was just another one of his provocative moves. In any case, ʽJoeyʼ is certainly no ʽHurricaneʼ because the violin is not as prominent (its role here is to be more relaxed), but it isn't a bad song — it is a moving tribute to a «street hero», with a sensitively delivered dirge-chorus where Bob, Emmylou, and Scarlet come together in a beautiful three-part harmony (two parts human, one part nylon). It probably did not deserve the honor to be as long as ʽSad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlandsʼ, but apart from that, I couldn't care less about the «real life» person it related to. Remember, he'd done that once before — singing about John Wesley Hardin as if he were some sort of Robin Hood of the West — and if we let him off that time, there is no reason to incriminate him here. It is an abstract tribute song to an abstract criminal with a heart of gold. It could have been ʽAdolphʼ instead of ʽJoeyʼ, that would have made the experience even more hardcore but it wouldn't have made Dylan a Nazist any more than ʽJoeyʼ makes him a gangster lover, or might turn us, the listeners, into gangster lovers. It's just a pretty piece of music, albeit a little repetitive.
Fortunately, no such big debate about the non-political masterpieces on here. Nary a weak piece on the block, so it is really tough to choose, but ʽOne More Cup Of Coffeeʼ has long been a personal favorite — Dylan bravely chooses quite an unusual genre to tackle here, a sort of mid-Eastern ballad that requires him to actually sing, modulating his voice in a melismatic manner, and gets away with it (although somehow I've always thought that it must have felt very much like taking a quick plunge in ice-cold water for him), while Emmylou on the chorus and Scarlet on the accompanying violin melody once again provide the perfect counterparts. It is one of the saddest songs in his vast repertoire — and in an epic manner at that: "one more cup of coffee 'fore I go to the valley below" sounds pretty much like the last word from a death row prisoner, awaiting to be beheaded in the morning. Prophetic in a way, too, whether there be any connection to his impending divorce — or to the impending creative decline.
But Desire is also the last ever Dylan album, or, at least, the last in a long, long time, on which he may sound forceful — energetic, wilful, even occasionally imposing and terrifying, though nobody could say exactly why or how. This is especially so on ʽIsisʼ, which, musically, could be described as Bob's impression of a tired caravan, slowly working its way through the desert — and lyrically does contain elements of a travelog, references to pyramids, and a little proto-Indiana Jones feel to it, everything delivered in such a loud, sparkling, indignant tone as if he were reproaching us, the poor listeners, for all of his personal unluck with ʽIsisʼ and the stupid guy who duped him into a tomb-raiding affair. On ʽBlack Diamond Bayʼ, singing from a third person perspective, he is being more detached, but still gives a theatrically engaging reading of the story — a story whose tempo and arrangement are fairly similar to ʽHurricaneʼ, but it really looks like the meditative, melancholic, philosophical brother of ʽHurricaneʼ. Lyrically, you can think of it as an allegory on the meaninglessness of life; musically, you can think of it... well, much in the same way, come to think of it.
ʽOh Sisterʼ and ʽSaraʼ are the most personal songs on here — the latter, in fact, is amazingly straightforward for Dylan, who'd never before dared to get that open on record, certainly not enough to publicly confess about having specifically written one of his songs for a particular person (not that the phonetic proximity between Sara Lownds and ʽSad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlandsʼ had ever escaped the attention of keen-eyed Dylanologists, but still, being forced out of the closet is always different from taking the initiative). Both are deeply moving tunes, but ʽOh Sisterʼ is certainly more «timeless», and has the added bonus of Emmylou and Scarlet playing the collective part of Bob's mysterious «sister» (no, the song is not about incest, or, at least, you'd never be able to prove that in court).
On a personal level, I have to confess that I am still more of a personal fan of Desire than of Blood On The Tracks. Maybe it is simply a case of being mysteriously attracted to the underdog (not that the album has not received its solid share of critical praise over the years), but more likely it is simply a case of being mysterious — there is so much on Desire that is intriguing and enigmatic: the whole album is like a wagonload of boxes that may or may not be empty, but you only have your own imagination and power of interpretation to reach that decision. And, of course, it also has the added bonus of being Dylan's last creative high peak — leaving aside the issue of the late-period «Time Out Of Mind Renaissance», which happened on an altogether different scale in an altogether different world anyway, Desire really was the last moment where you saw that bird reeling in the sky with enough boldness, freedom, lust for life and adventure to blow your own mind. That was at the end of 1975. The following year would see an unsuccessful tour, the beginning of transition to a new musical age, the final disintegration of the family unit, a personal mid-life crisis, insecurity, depression, pessimism, all sorts of stuff that would take such a serious toll on the Zimmerman brain, he'd never fully recover from it again. Therefore, just join me in my thumbs up here — enjoy it while it lasted — and here comes «the valley below».
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