Dylan painted his masterpiece — the next year he painted another one
It’s as predictable as death and taxes. Bob Dylan releases a new album and critics hyperventilate that it is his best since his masterful 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks.” The latter was an acoustic song cycle largely about the dissolution of a marriage (his marriage?), and it does indeed stand the test of time as a marker for all that was to follow. The only albums in Dylan’s entire catalog that vie with “Blood on the Tracks” for critical supremacy are his two mid-60’s classics, the back-to-back albums “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965) and “Blonde on Blonde” (1966). It doesn’t get any better than that, by Dylan or anyone, with the possible exception of the Beatles’ “Revolver” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” (Discuss.)
So if “Blood on the Tracks” still stands as Dylan’s greatest album since 1975, then which subsequent collection of new songs – not counting live albums, compilations, collections of archival material, and albums featuring other people’s songs (one Christmas album, two folk song collections, and three devoted to pre-rock pop standards) – truly deserves praise as “the best Dylan album since ‘Blood on the Tracks’?”
When I was first asked this question, a few albums came instantly to mind. The two records Dylan made with Daniel Lanois in the producer’s chair – 1989’s “Oh Mercy” and 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” – have always been near the top of my list. Both moody and evocative, boasting some of the best songs of his career, they turn out in hindsight to be flawed by the very production touches I had always enjoyed. Today, listening with new ears, the producer’s heavy hand with the soundscapes and effects placed behind “Oh Mercy” numbers such as “Man in the Long Black Coast” and “Most of the Time” make the album sound more like a Daniel Lanois album than one by Bob Dylan. Likewise, the Grammy Award-winning late-career 1997 comeback, “Time Out of Mind” – boasting compelling meditations on mortality including “Not Dark Yet” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” – is undermined by Lanois’s all-too-literal decision to make Dylan sound like he had already died and is singing from inside his tomb.
Having disposed of those two, I went back and listened to every studio album Dylan has released since “Blood on the Tracks” – 17 albums in all, from 1976’s “Desire” through last month’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” It was not an unpleasant way to spend a few days, and almost every album I listened to – with the exception of genuine clunkers like his mid-to-late 1980s efforts, “Knocked Out and Loaded” and “Down in the Groove” – made its case for itself.
“I’ve got epic songs like ‘Changing of the Guards’ and mystically inclined tunes like ‘Senor’,” said “Street Legal.”
“I’ve got passionate performances, great horn arrangements, and Jesus on my side – to say nothing of producer Jerry Wexler,” said “Slow Train Coming.”
“Shot of Love” boasted about its funky title track and the instant classic, “Every Grain of Sand,” while “Infidels” bragged about enigmatic songs like “Jokerman” and “I and I” and sweet guitar licks by Mark Knopfler. (“Yes,” I replied, “but you omitted two of your all-time classic songs, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Foot of Pride,’ from the final release. What were you thinking?”)
The string of post-“Time Out of Mind” recordings all made strong cases for themselves, too. “‘Love and Theft’,” “Modern Times,” and “Together Through Life” found Dylan searching for that elusive blend of roots-rock, pop, swing, blues, and country that would come to define his late-career sound. “Tempest” from 2012 has the funky rocker “Pay in Blood.” Even 1985’s cheesy “Empire Burlesque” called out, “Hey, I’ve got ‘Dark Eyes’,” a terrific acoustic guitar song that was tacked onto the end of what otherwise was something of a sonic travesty. A phrase from “Idiot Wind” best describes the results of my sonic expedition: “Now everything’s a little upside down … What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good.”
Through all the highs and all the lows and through re-listening to “Blood on the Tracks” to hear what made it so great in the first place, a somewhat modest contender emerged. Much to my surprise, the best album Dylan has made since “Blood on the Tracks” was his 1976 follow-up album, “Desire.” Other than its fatal flaw that keeps it from equaling or surpassing “Blood on the Tracks” – by that I mean the song “Joey,” a long, leaden ode to New York City mobster Joey Gallo that nearly sinks the whole ship in shoes of cement – the album is rich with some of Dylan’s best songwriting and performances and an overall aesthetic that rings true and authentic in a way that the Lanois albums and “Empire Burlesque” never were.
Plus, it has liner notes by Allen Ginsberg and harmonies by Emmylou Harris.
The album opens dramatically. The first thing you hear on “Hurricane” – about the false conviction and imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — is an acoustic guitar being played tentatively, as if someone is just testing out the instrument. Two measures in, a bass plucks a couple of notes. Two measures after that, drums kick in and pull the song out of the driveway, followed quickly by the appearance of a violin behind the wheel, introducing a melodic figure that will soon duet with Dylan’s urgent vocals. In cinematic storyteller mode – most of the song is written in the form of a screenplay — Dylan drops the listener right into the opening scene, replete with stage directions: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night / Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall / She sees a bartender in a pool of blood / Cries out ‘My god, they’ve killed them all.’”
Listening today, however, the lines from “Hurricane” that most resonate from beyond space and time are these:
“[Rubin] had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down/When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road/ Just like the time before and the time before that/In Paterson that’s just the way things go/If you’re Black you might as well not show up on the street/‘Less you wanna draw the heat.
Keep in mind, Bob Dylan wrote these lines 45 years ago.
“Desire” was recorded in just a few sessions that took place in summer and fall 1975 and was released on January 5, 1976 – the first week of America’s bicentennial celebration. It was no coincidence. “Hurricane,” the album “Desire,” and the contemporaneous tour – the famed Rolling Thunder Revue – in no small way marked Dylan’s return to social activism. His previous albums from the 1970s – “New Morning,” “Planet Waves,” and “Blood on the Tracks” – found the so-called Voice of a Generation turning inward, musing on the joys of love and family life, exploring spirituality, and cataloging the pain and anguish that follows in the wake of a broken relationship.
While Dylan had not turned totally solipsistic – “Idiot Wind” on “Blood on the Tracks” was a pointed indictment of American hypocrisy (“Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”) and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” on that same album, explored political corruption, possibly in reference to the Watergate scandal – Dylan hadn’t written an overtly topical protest song since the early 1960s, with the exception of the obscure, 1971 non-album track, “George Jackson,” about the murder of the eponymous Black Panther leader by prison guards at Soledad Prison in Northern California. Those who didn’t understand that — as Dylan himself once said —every song of his is in some way a “protest song” finally had their appetites for Dylan’s political engagement sated, at least temporarily. (Dylan also performed two huge benefit concerts for Carter’s legal defense fund, at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Houston Astrodome. After repeated retrials, Carter was eventually freed.)
After the album explodes with its torrential “Hurricane” opener, the quirky story-song “Isis” resets the table. Another feature for violinist Scarlet Rivera, duetting with Dylan’s own harmonica, the song starts with a wedding scene and descends into a comic-horror travelogue of death and despair before circling back around to the narrator’s wedding day, almost in “Groundhog Day” fashion.
“Mozambique” follows, a kind of antidote to “Isis” that describes an uncomplicated romantic idyll in a faraway land. Seemingly without irony, the song could well have been adopted as the theme for Mozambique’s state travel bureau.
Then the mood shifts to the dark, mournful strains of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” a song of troubled love, accompanied by haunting, klezmer-like fiddle passages by Rivera and Dylan at his most cantorial, veritably incorporating the krekhts, kneytshn, and tshoks of the Old World khazn. Or as Ginsberg wrote in his liner notes, proving himself to be an astute musicologist: “Voice lifts in Hebraic cantillation never heard before in U.S. song. ancient blood singing – a new age, a new Dylan again redeemed ‘ cantillating like synagogue cantor.
“Oh, Sister” continues in the same musical and lyrical vein, hinting at “forbidden love” that will be made manifest in the album’s penultimate song, “Black Diamond Bay.” The song “Romance in Durango” connects the album’s Gypsy sounds to those of Mexico, in another deliriously troubled tale of travel, tribalism and doomed love, often assumed to have been inspired by the filming a few years earlier of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (filmed on location in Durango, Mexico), in which Dylan starred as a character called Alias. “Romance” crossfades directly into “Black Diamond Bay,” perhaps the album’s most fully realized tragic travel romance, replete with an international cast of characters, a suicide attempt, a blackout, a loser gambling, a violent rainstorm (a hurricane in a nod to the album opener?), a volcano, a fire, and a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry.
The album fittingly and gorgeously concludes with the still-shocking-to-this day, intimate number, “Sara,” to whom the singer pleads, “Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go.” While fans have read autobiography in Dylan songs from almost day one, here was the first and only time that Dylan didn’t even pretend not to be writing about himself. The song title itself is the first giveaway, as Sara was the name of Dylan’s wife at the time, the mother of his first five children. And if news and gossip reports had not already indicated that Bob and Sara’s marriage was in trouble, “Blood on the Tracks” all but cataloged it – their son, Jakob Dylan, of Wallflowers fame, once said hearing that album is like eavesdropping on a conversation between his parents. But “Sara” breaks the fourth wall (in spite of Jacques Levy), both in the use of the name of his real-life wife and in the reference to one of Dylan’s own songs from the mid-Sixties, when he sings the line, “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” Dylan had never written anything like that before and he never would again. And as far as Sara in song went, the “sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life” would be replaced two years later by a “Miss X” about whom the singer “never know[s] what the poor girl’s gonna do to me next,” in “New Pony” on the worthy album “Street Legal.”
“Desire” does have one problem or footnote, however. All the songs on the album except for “Sara” and “One More Cup of Coffee” are co-credited to Dylan and theater director and psychologist Jacques Levy. What is one to do with that information? Are these genuinely Bob Dylan songs or should they fall into a separate category of Dylan co-writes (which would include the 2009 album, “Together Through Life,” most of whose songs are co-credited to Dylan and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter)? Dylan once told an interviewer that Levy was primarily responsible for the lyrics to “Joey,” which would go a long way toward explaining or excusing that number. The rest sound enough like Dylan songs that I would consider them part of his core opus, and if Levy provided some technical support here and there, so what.
Overall, “Desire” is one of the most coherent, well-rounded, unified and organic-sounding albums of Dylan’s career. Little or nothing comes between singer and listener, and over time it has proven to be one of Dylan’s most popular, critical, and commercial successes.
“Desire” is no “Blood on the Tracks,” but it is, literally and figuratively, the next best thing.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward, and the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).