Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 1. “Love and Theft”

Time Out of Mind is generally considered to be Bob Dylan’s major comeback statement after a decade of what some might call stale material.  “Love and Theft” by contrast is the masterpiece of latter-day Bob Dylan.  On its own merits, it’s an album that most artist would kill to make.  For Bob Dylan it stands up with his best albums and rightfully earns the title “his best since Blood on the Tracks“.

Dylan rightfully gave Daniel Lanois the boot producing the album himself under the moniker Jack Frost.  As a result, “Love and Theft” is Dylan’s wildest, funniest set of songs, since The Basement Tapes.  And like the Basement Tapes, “Love and Theft” uses Americana as a blue-print.  And like those classic songs, Dylan ends up re-creating Americana (and myths of rural America) in his own image.  “Mississippi” is the crown-achievement here (a minor quibble – but it stills bugs me that Sheryl Crow was the first person to introduce this song to the public).   It’s the type of song where the more you listen, the more it confuses you and leaves you begging for more.  Sometimes Dylan seems sarcastic when he sings “the only thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.  Other times it’s seems like a lament.   (Though for me the definitive version is the guitar only version found on Tell Tale Signs.)

“High Water (For Charley Patton)” continues a theme about floods that Dylan would also explore on Modern Times.  Driven by a banjo, the songs and its lyrics sound like it could be included on The Harry Smith anthology.  Again, the song gains more poignancy as natural disasters seems to engulf the midwest with increased frequency.  Some of the lyrics are also taken from Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” – but for Dylan its not theft.  (Perhaps that might be the reason why the album’s title is in quotes.)  He’s aligning himself with his legends – and bringing these legends back to life.  There’s no better homage than that.  Charley Patton would be proud.

“Love and Theft” also finds Dylan telling jokes and being downright silly – there’s  a whole song devoted to a conversation between Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee (though Dylan refers to them as “Tweedlee Dum and Tweedlee Dee”).  Elsewhere, he tells corny jokes – “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time” and knock-knock jokes (“Po’Boy”).

“Love and Theft” doesn’t contain any major statements about the world, or ruminations on death.  Instead, “Love and Theft” is the album where Bob Dylan truly merges everything that’s ever been on his mind – literature (there’s a reference a Othello), blues, jokes, Americana, and love.   It might not be as mind-blowing or influential as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but you could also argue the case that it’s just as good.

Absolutely essential for any music fan.

 

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 2. “Desire”

Desire is perhaps Bob Dylan’s most “worldly” album.  Part of Desire’s charm and wild character comes from the help of Jacques Levy who co-wrote eight of the nine songs on Desire with Dylan. It’s a messy, ramshackle affair filled with Middle-Eastern and Gypsy influences (Scarlet  Riveria’s violin is over the record), lyrics sung in Spanish (“Romance in Durango”)and song titles (“Mozambique”) suggesting that Dylan would rather be anywhere than home.  These sounds and lyrics were no doubt inspired by The Rolling Thunder Revue Tour was Dylan imagined as a sort of traveling circus – complete with numerous guests.  Emylou Harris shows up for background vocals on many of the songs – an idea that Dylan would take to the extreme on albums such as Street Legal and Empire Burlesque.

It’s also an album full of epics. “Isis” finds its narrator trying to both treasure and the mysterious Isis.  The fictional story seems transcends the normal rules of geography and time, as the narrator travels through Egypt and Mexico (and burying his traveling companion in the process) before realizing that he was a fool.  The song loosely suggests that perhaps Dylan would one day again come back to his wife.  “Joey”  presents tale of Gangster Joey Gallo in a somewhat sympathetic manner – an outlaw with a code and morals.  (Although critics have pointed out that Gallo was quite violent.)  Then of course, there is “Hurricane” – the album’s most famous track recalling the trial of boxer Rubin Carter.

Ultimately Desire comes off as a 1970s version of Blonde on Blonde as Dylan tries so many different ideas and pushing them in wild and unexpected directions.  Scarlet Riveria’s violin drives the first two songs (“Hurriance” and “Isis”) creating a tension and propelling these vastly different stories along.  “One More Cup of Coffee” with its haunting duet between Harris and Dylan, sounds like it could have been an old Eastern European folk song that Dylan dug up from the album.  “Romance in Durango” sounds like Dylan cut the song in a studio in Durango.

Desire closes with “Sara” – an ode to his wife, where he remembers his young children playing in order to get here back.   It’s a haunting song (especially since Sara Dylan was in the studio when Dylan sang it) but it’s almost too much.  Dylan’s best songs are usually shrouded in mystery and have numerous meanings – and with “Sara” is so naked and personal, it’s almost a shock to hear Dylan be so honest for once.

Desire ranks among Dylan’s best because he’s challenging himself and his audiences expectations of him once again and creating some beautiful songs in the process.

 

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 3. “Modern Times”

Both Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft” found Bob Dylan looking to the American musical past in a way that he hadn’t in years.  Time Out of Mind was mostly blues-based, and “Love and Theft” covered blues and Americana.  Modern Times covers that seem territory, but also includes swing and jazz influences.  This era must have been on Dylan’s mind.  The album covers includes a fuzzy version picture of a 1930s car surrounded by city lights, and the album title alludes to Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times.

And like its two predecessors, Modern Times finds Dylan in familiar territory, but he’s not coasting.  “Thunder on the Mountain” moves along with a rockabilly bounce as Dylan tells the listener that Alicia Keys has been on his mind.  “When the Deal Goes Down” might be Dylan at his jazziest.  It’s a sound that could easily turn into something cheesy in the hands of some-one like Rod Stewart, but Dylan gets inside the song and uses a business exchange, or card game depending on your view, as a metaphor for death.  “I owe my heart to you, and that’s saying it true,” He croons.  “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”

And in case you think that Dylan has forgotten the social issues of his youth he’s laments the state of the working man in “Working Man Blues #2”.  It’s the type of song that one can imagine that men would sing on trains during the Depression as they made their way from town to town in search of work.  “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is based on the blues standard “When the Levee Breaks” made famous by Led Zeppelin.  While Zeppelin’s version was furious, Dylan’s version is more sorrowful, and gains more resonance since the song was recorded less than a year after Hurricane Katrina.  It’s hard not to picture the devastation of New Orleans when Dylan observes, “some people on the road carrying everything they own”.

Like many classic Dylan albums, Modern Times ends with an epic that only Dylan could conceive.  “Ain’t Talkin”  one of the darkest and spookiest songs Dylan has recorded.  Over a sparse guitar Dylan walks through “the mystic garden” and admits that he’ll “burn that bridge before you can cross”.  “Ain’t Talkin” comes off as an updated version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” where the narrator wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world.  In that song, Dylan seems shocked by what he sees.  In “Ain’t Talkin” though, Dylan isn’t shocked, but just bitter.  He says that he’s still yearning, but then he wants you out of his miserable brain.

Ultimately, Modern Times uses the past to shine light on contemporary subjects.  In it’s own way, it’s Dylan’s most political album (without being explicitly political) since the protest days.  It’s not as direct, and he’s still got a lot on his mind – we just have to listen.

 

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 4. Infidels

I recently read Bob Dylan considered Elvis Costello, David Bowie and Frank Zappa to help produce Infidels.  Costello would be the most interesting to see at the helm – he might have given Infidels a more folk-style approach.  As such, Infidels holds up extremely well in large part due to the addition of Mark Knopfler – whose tasteful production and guitar work are everywhere throughout the album.

For the 80s it was contemporary sound – but it doesn’t hold itself as an 80s album (something that can’t be said of some of his other albums from that era.)  Dylan reportedly hired Knopfler, in part because he didn’t know the new production technology.  Still though, its an album that has been trimmed of the fat and excess. “Jokerman” might be the most well-known song, but its reggae isn’t not representative of the album. There’s a punch on many songs – “Man of Peace” “Neighborhood Bully” – and Dylan lashes out the lyrics with a renewed vigor not seen since Desire.

Infidels might be Dylan’s first secular album after a trio of Christian inspired albums, but the Bible and its themes are everywhere.  Interestingly though, it’s the Old Testament and Judaism that occupies his thoughts.  “Jokerman” name-checks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Sodom and Gommorah.  Elsewhere, “Neighborhood Bully” has often been interpreted as Dylan’s support of Israel, due to the inclusion of Israeli historical events.  The penultimate song, “I And I” borrows its title from a Rastafarian practice of saying “I and I” when referring to one’s self to include the speaker with the presence of the Almighty in every day situations.  Taking this as cue, Dylan uses the song to refer to the Hebrew God, whose name can’t be uttered by the observant.  It’s also worth noting that the front cover photograph was taken by Sara Dylan, at a hotel in Jerusalem.

Among critics, Infidels has been seen as something of a lost opportunity for Dylan.  The exclusion of “Foot of Pride” and “Blind Willie McTell” has left many shaking their heads for decades.  The familiar demo version of “Blind Willie McTell” (though apparently there’s a full-band version that was recorded) while brilliant, probably would have overshadowed the rest of the album’s quality.

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 5. Time Out Of Mind

Song for song, Time Out of Mind should probably be higher on this list.  But it’s one of the few Dylan albums where the songs really come to live better in the live arrangements, mostly due to Daniel Lanois’ production.  For some reason, Lanois decided that a swamp was a great place for a studio – hiding Dylan’s lyrics in a foggy murk.

I’ve always thought of Time Out of Mind as a sort of sonic version of The Grapes of Wrath, in its set-up.  Steinbeck’s masterpiece contains several chapters revolving around turtle in the middle of the Joad’s plight.  When I first read this, I wondered what the hell a turtle has to do with the plot.  It seems like a throwaway, not pertaining to the plot, but contains many symbols directly related to the story arc. Similarly in Time Out of Mind, the blues ditties  of “Million Miles”, and “Dirt Road Blues” and even “Cold Irons Bound” seem out of place with the weighty themes of the rest of the album, but upon further listenings these songs do in fact fit within the theme of the album, and ultimately make it a more rewarding experience.

It’s easy to assume that Time Out of Mind is Dylan’s view on mortality especially since not long after the album’s release he had a near fatal heart condition.  Many of these songs do contain references to death and mortality, but visions of end times (whether it be his or the world’s) have always been a part of Dylan’s music.

Time Out of Mind was an important album for Dylan in many ways – it was his most critically acclaimed album in years, but more than that it also found him looking back to the pre rock and roll blues that inspired him, sounds he would explore for his next few albums.  In a way, Time Out of Mind is a much freer and looser album than Dylan had produced in years – and the closing track harkens back to his Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde days with “Highlands” – a sprawling 16 minute song.  It seems like the band is trying to keep up with Dylan.

Still, Time Out of Mind remains one of the few Dylan albums that I really wish was remastered or cleaned-up.

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 6. Oh Mercy

Twenty 22 years after its initial release, it’s hard view Oh Mercy as the “comeback” album that critics suggested upon its initial release.  It’s certainly Dylan’s most consistent album of the 1980s, thanks in large part to the production and assistance of Daniel Lanois.   Many of Dylan’s 80s albums have been viewed as misfires due to the exclusions of certain songs that would later appear on the various Bootleg Series.  In retrospect, Oh Mercy suffers not from lack of quality songs (though why the hell “Series of Dreams” is missing is still baffling) but rather inferior versions of keys songs.

Lanois was wise to eschew the large production and big-band sound that had plagued many of Dylan’s 80s albums.  Instead, Oh Mercy offers an atmospheric swamp-type vibe that never overshadows Dylan, though something that would happen on  Time Out of Mind.    Oh Mercy, is probably the first appearance of Dylan’s modern-day smokey, weary voice.  It hasn’t fully descended into the voice of the man who wonders if he can get into heaven before the door closes, but it gives resonance to a song like “Most of the Time”.  Dylan’s gravelly voice gives extra weight as he confesses that, “most of the time she ain’t even in my mind”.  It’s a heartbreaking song, but his voice makes you believe he’s probably felt this way for over a decade.  “I don’t even care if I never see her again,” He croons at the end.  The listener feels bad, because he’s clearly lying, and he probably knows it too.

Elsewhere, Dylan gives an updated version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the laundry list of broken things in “Everything Is Broken”.   The lyrics aren’t shot out at 60mph, but like the iconic 1965 single, the lyrics by themselves don’t make much sense by themselves.  However, its quite effective as Dylan runs through the gamut  – “Broken bottles, broken plates, Broken switches, broken gates, Broken dishes, broken parts”. The closer, “Shooting Star” is probably my favorite song off the album, and I was first introduced to it on Bob Dylan Unplugged, which I only listened to once, and found myself absolutely loving this gorgeous song.

Oh Mercy’s acclaim has probably dimmed in years in part due to Dylan’s own renaissance in the late 90s and 2000s, but for mid-career Dylan it’s a  definite high point.

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 7. “Street Legal”

After the masterpieces of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, it seems inevitable that Dylan’s follow-up would dip slightly in quality.  Blood on the Tracks was a naked emotional affair, and Desire was a wild, gypsy sounding outing – the perfect studio counterpart for the Rolling Thunder Revue.  And Street Legal?  Parts of it sound like a cross between E-Street Band (there’s saxophones) and a Vegas theme-show (the first appearance of the backing singers).

Lyric-wise the album finds Dylan swimming in similar waters as the past two albums – the break-up of his marriage, and his divorce.  He’s looking for new women in his life – even if it’s just for one wild ride as suggested in “New Pony”.  “New Pony” is among the grittiest songs Dylan has recorded. Its fierce riff and pounding drums perfectly suit the menacing equestrian/sexual theme of the song.  Dylan has written many songs about sex, but “New Pony” is probably his most explicit – it almost makes the listener feel dirty.

If there was ever a song that begged for the acoustic Dylan it would be “No Time to Think”.   “No Time to Think” is 1970s Dylan in full protest mood with views on mortality.  (In a way, it’s a sort of pre-cursor to the Christian albums, which would shortly follow Street Legal).  It’s a dense song – lyrics such as ” You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear At the back of your head as you drink And there’s no time to think” would have hit harder if it weren’t for the big-band production.

Street Legal finds Dylan at a cross roads.  Throughout the album, he’s taken the yearning for lost love as far it can go.  It’s not surprising that in the year (1978) when punk rock was at its apex, Dylan would go the opposite route and put out an album full of grandiose arrangements and a full-band.  Ultimately, Street Legal can be a rewarding album on its own merits, but unlike Dylan’s best albums, the gems aren’t on the surface.

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 8. “Together Through Life”

Together Through Life ranks as one of Dylan’s most fun albums.  Gone are the dark observations of Modern Times, and the travelogues of Americana on “Love an Theft”.  There are no major statements, it’s just the sound of Dylan and his band tearing through pre-rock and roll blues like only they can do.

Together Through Life is only the second time that Dylan has co-written songs with a collaborator – in this case Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.  As such, Dylan seems a little livelier on this album than he has in the past few records.  He’s clearly having fun – there’s audible laughs throughout and a cry of, “woo!” near the end of ‘It’s All Good'”.  It’s an album where Dylan seems comfortable being Bob Dylan an old man.  There’s no ruminations on mortality or a world gone wrong.  Instead, Together Through Life is an album almost solely devoted to one of Dylan’s other favorite past-times: women.

Throughout the album he’s scornful (“Forgetful Heart”), hilarious (“My Wife’s Hometown”), and even lustful (“Shake Shake Mama” – which at least musically is one of his best rockers in years).  The music on Together Through Life is given a kick by the addition of an accordion, which dominates many of the songs.  “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” comes off as something as  a straight forward blues number with a Hispanic twinge.  While bluesy stomp of “My Wife’s Hometown” borrows its music from Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Dylan’s version just wants to tell you “that hell’s [his] wife’s hometown”.

The closest that Dylan gets to a major statement on the album is the sarcastic closer, “It’s All Good”.  Even from the beginning Dylan has always found a way to take cliched phrases and turn them on their head, and hasn’t done it this good since the 1960s.  Dylan sees a world with politicians telling lies, wives leaving their husbands, and buildings. Where the young Dylan might have offered a solution (or at least made us think we could change the world), the Dylan at almost 70 sarcastically declares, “You know what they say man.  It’s all good.”

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 9. “Empire Burlesque”

Empire Burlesque is one of the stranger albums in Dylan’s career.  It’s full of some great songs, but it’s hard to listen to because of the glossy production. It’s clearly the product of its time, cementing it to the mid-1980s.  It’s one the most star-studded album of Dylan’s career with numerous guests including reggae rhythm legends Sly & Robbie, Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and Ronnie Wood an Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones.

But don’t let the awful cover and production fool you.  There are some real gems here – “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love”, “Something’s Burning Baby”, and the stand-out final track, “Dark Eyes”.  Underneath the glossy sheen of the album, Dylan is fine spirits throughout whether he’s spitting out venom in “Seeing You The Real You At Last”, or lamenting the trials of a Vietnam-Vet on “Clean Cut Kid”.  “I’ll Remember You” is one of his most heartfelt ballads since Desire.  The vicious “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky” loses it some of its lyrical power with its thick groove, and odd synthesizers fills.

“Dark Eyes” is without a doubt the best song on the album.  In an album filled with big production, it ends with Dylan only accompanied by guitar and harmonica.  It’s full on folk, and Dylan gives one of the best vocal performances of the 80s.  It’s a nakedly stark song.  Is this a nod to “Desolation Row” which was the only acoustic song on the electric-fueled “Highway 61”.  You never know with Dylan.