Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thoughts On Bob Dylan

Let me begin by saying that I have not heard Together Through Life. I did stream the first single, Beyond Here Lies Nothin', and although it is-- typical of '00s Bob Dylan-- yet another 12 bar blues, it sounds awesome.

I've been reading some of the reviews, which are by-and-large positive, but they also tend to describe the record along the lines of "light", "breezy", and "impersonal." While that sounds like it adds up to something fun, it also illuminates what I believe is a valid criticism of most of Dylan's work:

That would be that Dylan shows so little of his true self in most of his songs. He is so gifted when it comes to inventing characters and telling their stories, but sometimes I think he uses that as a mask/crutch to avoid exposing his true psyche to the public.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I don't think that I, placed in his shoes, could really become a heart-on-sleeve balladeer who shares a little bit of my soul with each public release. I completely understand Bob Dylan's emotional reticence in that regard.

But what strikes me is that Dylan's '60s contemporaries who remain relevant in 2009-- and the two names that spring to mind first are Neil Young and Joni Mitchell-- have built careers around songs that really do expose their beliefs and emotions. Each of the three have faced peaks and valleys in their careers-- most notable in that all 3 sucked ass for nearly all of the '80s.

But think about Bob Dylan specifically, and his career trajectory. He began as a protest singer. Politics and social justice formed the first shield between him and his public. He even affected his voice (you can hear him singing in pure form on Nashville Skyline) both to distinguish himself from other folk singers, but also (I'd argue) to keep the real Bob Dylan a little removed from what the public saw.

On Another Side of Bob Dylan, we saw... well, just that. Songs like "My Back Pages" revealed the man's psyche (at least a little piece of it) and the public and critical response was tremendous. But just as quickly, Dylan started building new veneers to protect his inner self from his listening audience. Humor helped in this regard. "Maggie's Farm" and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" are great songs, highly entertaining, and ultimately tell you nothing about the man singing them. Perhaps parts of the lyrics are true; perhaps no part of them is. We don't know, and admittedly, the mystery therein is a huge part of Bob Dylan's appeal.

As Dylan plugged in, he started using his swagger and star persona as his shield. Songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Ballad of a Thin Man" taught the likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed how to be rock stars (even if Bowie would later lash out at Dylan), but they didn't show us anything we could prove was a reflection of the man singing them.

I can't go through every era in Bob Dylan's career-- he's released 46 albums for crying out loud-- but consider the other things he's hidden his true self behind: genre (Nashville Skyline), storytelling (John Wesley Harding), Christianity (Slow Train Coming) and olde tyme cowboy blues (past decade).

Interestingly enough, the albums where Dylan has let down his guard-- Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Time Out of Mind-- have been some of the best received of his career. But even those are only partly confessional. While Blood on the Tracks has "If You See Her, Say Hello," it also has the yarn-spinning of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." While Desire has "Sara", it also has tall tales like "Isis" and a return to politics on "Hurricane." Modern Times, for what it's worth, was pretty "confessional" by Dylan standards. And you know what? I'd credit that, in part, for the tremendous reception it received.

So am I somehow suggesting Bob Dylan is inferior to more heart-on-sleeve '60s survivors like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell? Hell no! I love every non-personal twist Bob Dylan has taken over his 46 albums. (Well I don't know about the Christian stuff, but honestly I haven't heard much of it.)

More than anything, I guess I'm remarking on the unusual circumstance of a folk-based singer thriving through 5 decades with so little of his true personal self revealed. I wouldn't change it for the world-- I'm not one to try to "improve" a 98% perfect product. Really this is just my observation and, hopefully, a discussion starter.


Eric said...

I'm glad you posted this, firstly because it's been mighty quiet around here lately, but also because by coincidence I have been listening to almost nothing but Dylan for the past couple weeks. It started after I had absorbed that Bonnie Prince Billy album (you're right-- his stuff is impossible to find used), which led me back to John Wesley Harding, Music From Big Pink and ultimately The Basement Tapes. I had never been a big fan of that record-- too many tossed off speak-songs and The Band at its most banal (though I like Ruben Remus and Katie's Been Gone, which do have that Band sound). But for the first time I decided to dive in to the bootlegs. It's much less intimidating than I thought. I had always likened it to The Beatles Get Back/Let it Be sessions, but while the most recent version of those is literally 80 discs long, the available basement tapes actually fit onto four CDs (the most recent iteration, and the one I downloaded, is called A Tree With Roots, and can be had here, among other places:


I highly recommend it. Hearing the tossed off songs in the context of the unreleased songs (some of them absolutely stunning, like I'm Not There and Sign of the Cross) and the covers of various country, blues and traditional folk songs, really enriched the experience and it suddenly made a lot more sense.

Hearing Dylan in the context of this blues/country/folk tradition led me to finally give his recent albums a chance, and I've now been spinning Love & Theft pretty regularly (getting Modern Times next).

Anyway, to connect this to the actual subject of your post (about which I have more to say), I'm finding that right now, the "Side of Dylan" I'm enjoying is that exact impersonal, folk-tradition-steeped storyteller mode that is his most impersonal.

Also, conversely to your comment about Blood on the Tracks, even the less personal albums have more personal songs --- It's All Over Now Baby Blue on Bringing It All Back Home, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues on Highway 61, Don't Think Twice It's Alright on Freewheelin', etc.

But it's definitely an interesting observation because I think it's true-- at this point, it's hard to imagine Bob Dylan as an actual person. Especially because at this point, his voice is basically otherworldly.

Lastly, I think people are calling this new one "light" and "breezy" because it has a lot of accordion on it. Seriously!

drischord said...

Tree With Roots sounds amazing-- much more gratifying than the Columbia-released Basement Tapes. Thanks for posting that link!

Good point about the "personal" songs on the "impersonal" albums. The more I think about it, the more I'm amazed that Bob Dylan crafted such a prodigious careers as an emotionally evasive folk singer. That's like being an unplugged heavy metal artist.

Eric said...

Well it's interesting that you keep using the word "folk" like this. One thing that I got to thinking about is how the term "folk music," in the Harry Smith Anthology sense, means music that every day people listen to in their daily lives (often in a social setting) -- as distinct from music created as high art or for religious purposes (though some religious music is folk music too). But the thing was, in the sixties, a bunch of kids who loved the music on the Harry Smith compilation started playing it with acoustic guitars and later on some of those same kids (and others) started "baring their souls" while playing acoustic guitars, and suddenly "folk" means something totally different.

All of which is not to nitpick your usage of the term "folk music" (which is obviously the common colloquial use of it anyway) but point out that, ironically, what Dylan is doing now (especially in the way that he's almost shamelessly appropriating old blues and country melodies for his new songs -- something I take issue with, actually) is far more authentically folk than anything on Blood on the Tracks.

drischord said...

Agreed on all counts. Yeah, my definition of "folk" would not jibe with musicologists. I'm really using it to describe '60s-present singers with (usually) acoustic guitars. And who (as this argument would suggest) have a tendency to bare their souls in their lyrics.

drischord said...

Also, the album Tree With Roots is reminding me of more than anything else (and not including the obvious, which is The Basement Tapes)...

Jack Logan's "Bulk."

Eric said...

Ha! Except he actually intentionally released that album!

texplush said...

dudes -
how do i open a rar file?

Eric said...

download winrar (whatever the latest, non-beta version is):

texplush said...

Eric, your technical fluency trumps mine.
i tried to find the program you mean on that link and the one i downloaded just opened a text-based command box. i can't figure out what to do! help!

Quinapalus said...

Isn't winrar a windows based program? Do you need something else on a mac.

I'm just guessing, I have no idea, but I've used winrar in the past without a problem.

Looking forward to looking into Tree With Roots when life slows down a little bit...

drischord said...

I just used Stuffit Expander (free download) and let the magic happen.