BOB DYLAN: WORLD GONE WRONG (1993)
1) World Gone Wrong; 2) Love Henry; 3) Ragged & Dirty; 4) Blood In My Eyes; 5) Broke Down Engine; 6) Delia; 7) Stack A Lee; 8) Two Soldiers; 9) Jack-A-Roe; 10) Lone Pilgrim.
Dylan has never been an enemy to sequels, and many of his finest records come in «pairs» or «trios», be they acoustic folk, electric rock'n'roll, or Jesusfests — and since Good As I Been To You got such good reviews, a quick follow-up along the same lines would appear quite natural. But it wouldn't be true Dylan, either, if the follow-up were observing exactly the same angle. One more page had to be turned, so, for World Gone Wrong, Dylan chose a «long black cloak» to wrap it in. Where the first record was essentially the soundtrack to an old, ragged traveling minstrel show, with women and children all equally welcome to sing along to ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ, World Gone Wrong takes a more serious, and usually, quite deadly view of the world.
Bob himself, clean-shaven now and well-trimmed, is posing on the front cover in the guise of an undertaker — sharing a quiet moment with a cup of coffee and a candle right after the services have been held. Sure enough, the title track, if taken literally, only documents a nasty breakup between the man and his gal, but there are so many other nasty things happening later on that nobody will want to take it literally: «world gone wrong» does refer to the whole world, not just the protagonist's own personal world.
Once again, all the songs are traditional oldies, some fairly well known (like Blind Willie McTell's ʽBroke Down Engineʼ), some excavated by Bob from fairly obscure sources, but given a thorough explanation in the liner notes, which he wrote himself, almost as if he really really wanted us to digest and enjoy these songs on their own exclusive terms, rather than in the form of «yet another Bob Dylan album». Of course, that would be impossible, and people still ended up writing about how Bob really managed to breathe new life into them old tunes, and you can't blame them: even if he truly wanted to perform ʽWorld Gone Wrongʼ and ʽBlood In My Eyesʼ the same way they were done by the Mississippi Sheiks sixty years earlier, he couldn't have done it. But then the Mississippi Sheiks, after all, were playing for popular entertainment, hiding the songs' grieving heart behind a wall of lively, upbeat fiddles and guitars. Bob Dylan, at best, is playing for popular education rather than popular entertainment — and he has no obligation, to his record label or to his audience, to whitewash any of the feelings.
Consequently, World Gone Wrong is one of Dylan's bleakest albums, full to the brim with murder ballads and depressed blues, and, in its own way, paving the road to Time Out Of Mind, whose artistic success was, beyond any doubt, at least partly the result of inspiration drawn from recording these covers. With one or two exceptions, there is hardly even any harmonica on here: harmonica is known to liven up the atmosphere, and Dylan does not need that for his current purpose. Instead, he invests it all in his guitar playing, choosing the saddest chord sequences in his repertoire to match the lyrics and vocal intonations. And if there might have been occasional questions as to whether his voice was really suitable to sing stuff like ʽTomorrow Nightʼ, no such problem is evident here.
With the themes and moods so consistent, highlights vs. lowlights are impossible to discuss, so we shall bypass any song-by-song comments and get out the general judgement: World Gone Wrong is a more important album than Good As I Been To You, since it is more conceptual, and the concept is carried out in the spirit of Bob Dylan, not in the spirit of those old folk guys, God bless 'em, who had preserved those songs for us, on tape and shellac, back when the spirit of Bob Dylan was not just non-existent, but pretty much unthinkable. It is tempting to compare it with Nick Cave's Murder Ballads, which came out three years later and were quite obviously inspired by this album (two of the songs, ʽStagger Leeʼ and ʽHenry Leeʼ, are the same as ʽStack A Leeʼ and ʽLove Henryʼ) — but Cave, when it comes to such matters, usually goes all the way, building up a heavy-hitting atmosphere of doom and gloom; Bob wouldn't have been able to do it if just for the reason of not having Nick's vocal capacities, and his delivery is far more understated, and takes more time to sink in if you are in the mood for acute depression.
The record ends on a spiritual note — ʽLone Pilgrimʼ, an anthem pulled out of The Sacred Harp, calms us down after all the tales of grief and woe, once again reminding, in a traditional way now, that «death is not the end», because all the good pilgrims simply go home when they die. Whether this could be any consolation to a non-religious person is unclear, but Dylan has constructed this whole album from an obviously religious point of view (and, for that matter, he had never officially rebuked his Christianity), and if he wants this emotional flourish — the world may have gone wrong, but not Heaven — he's got every right to have it, and still get his thumbs up rating.
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