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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Bob Dylan – New Morning

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 8
Overall Rating = 13

Best Song: NEW MORNING

In his last album before a three-year hiatus of near-inactivity, Bob Dylan steps back into the more serious territory of John Wesley Harding. That's not to say he acts as if Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait never happened: the diverse, lightweight roots rock sound with a more notable country flavour of those two records is present most of the time. But it adds that simpler musical style to the rambling piano chord sequences and introspective lyricism of John Wesley Harding in a way where the album could be a continuation of any one of the three albums without feeling like there's a missing link in between; that is to say, New Morning could have come out in 1968, in late 1969 or when it actually did and it feels like a natural progression in Bob's catalogue. Where it adds to them is that a) the kind of thoughtfulness in the lyrics is no longer focused on complex allegories, but rather on relatable topics of love, family, home life, religion and even death (a sort of compromise between the generic country lyrics of the later two albums and the complexity of the 1967 classic) and b) there are a number of other genres thrown into the mix, like gospel, country waltz, jazz and even Jewish prayer music(!)

In general, the themes mentioned above are interconnected by the feeling of searching for them, as if Bob had lost his way and was seeking answers on how to balance those that he desired and how to avoid succumbing to fears of those he did not. This kind of "lost" vibe is perfectly complemented by the ever-present piano playing, which more often than not sounds like Bob strung together some random chords with no logic, yet that are made coherent thanks to the melodies added to them. Of course, the way that describes it might make the album seem very stripped down, which is hardly the case. There's plenty of guitar playing – both electric and acoustic – there's some great drumming at times, there's even plenty of organ and I swear on a couple of tracks there are brief moments of orchestration (although in the credits the closest to that is Al Kooper contributing French horn). One thing that's somewhat surprising is the near-absence of Bob's patented harmonica, which only appears on a single track.

It shouldn't be too surprising that this song, album opener "If Not for You", is the album's best-known and one of its more highly appreciated: not because it's the only track on the album with harmonica (although sound wise it could feel comfortable on any Bob Dylan album after 1965), but because, like a lot of the better known Bob Dylan songs, it has an equally or more well-known cover of it that's stylistically different and serves as a great counterpoint. The cover I'm referring to is George Harrison's rendition on his then-soon-to-be-released All Things Must Pass, and as one can expect, the difference in sound between the two is like night and day: while George's Phil Spector-concocted sound is sensuous midnight romance, Bob Dylan's rendition, with scraggly pedal steel-like guitar lines, cheap-sounding combo organ and Bob's ragged vocal performance – a full return of his nasal whine, now featuring extra grit in his throat – is closer to the sonic equivalent of the least popular guy in school trying to serenade the prettiest girl in school with the expected lack of tact, finesse and suave you would expect. And when the harmonica solo comes in, in all its chord-like, "a homeless man could have played this" glory, it's just the icing on the cake. From a musical perspective, of course, these surface flaws are part of the rootsy, homely charm, and the fact that the song's soft, cooing melody can be as appreciable in this format as it is in Harrison's is just a testament to Bob Dylan's never-waning melody writing (or nicking, if it has folk origins) talent.

The second best-known song gets its fame from a more peculiar source, given the usual method of Dylan songs being brought to light (on its own merit or by cover). Yes indeed, I'm referring to "The Man in Me", the tune that served as a "theme" of sorts, to The Big Lebowski (which by the way, if you haven't seen it, is a fantastic film). It's as much a lyrical successor as it is a spiritual successor to "If Not for You"; much like the album opener, it features organ and snappy country-esque guitars – with the former now in snowy wisps and the latter in the form of acoustic guitar rather than in pedal steel-imitating electric – with the extra accompaniment of poppy piano staccato chords and cheery gospel backup vocals, and the lyrics once again have Dylan express unimaginable devotion to a woman who's importance in his life can not be understated (what more could you make of a line like "the man in me will do nearly any task/And as for compensation there is little he could ask"?). It's also as melodically endowed, although people who attack the song as dippy for the frequent "la la la" vocal hook will try and tell you otherwise. Personally, I think it adds to the goofy charm and shows the seemingly cult-ish and brainwashed way the character falls in line with his woman's every command.

While musically those two songs – highlights as they may be – can be accused of being pro forma, the now keyboard-oriented Dylan is otherwise quite prone to stylistic experimentation on this album. The most divergent of these songs – four of them, to be exact – could also be accused of something, this time of being filler-ish experiments, especially the way they're each grouped in pairs to conclude an LP side in an unexpected way, but I have issues with that assumption because a) even if they're filler-ish in composition, doesn't mean they are so in execution and b) the second pair contains two highlights, for me anyways. As I said before, the general themes of the album are love, life, death and spirituality, and the latter two are especially present in the closing two numbers, making them ideal conclusions. The end begins (for a lack of a better description) with "Three Angels", a funereal dirge where thick, smokey Hammond organ chords swirl around hypnotically and classical guitar arpeggios follow suite, with wordless "oohs" and "aahs" from gospel vocalists rising and falling as they may in accompaniment. The focal point of the tune, however, is Bob Dylan's spoken vocal delivery, one that comes off as a eulogy of sorts, even if the words themselves don't indicate it (they instead paint a portrait of an urban street).

The actual conclusion, "Father of Night", is the previously mentioned Jewish prayer reinterpreted and set to music, which manages to be as funereal as the track preceding it while also being much livelier on a musical level. It's based on a piano riff that sounds like a sped-up, minor key equivalent to the "All Along the Watchtower" chord progression, which is played in a bouncy way that doesn't indicate joviality but rather urgency, either in running from death or running towards it, and the morose gospel vocals following along the chords only adds to that impression. And of course, the lyrics based on the prayer themselves are the pièce de résistance; I could hardly say that the imagery here surpasses that of Bob's own works (although the way the words describing the Father as a towering, imposing creator of all is pretty epic in its own right), but his quasi-rapping delivery of them, as if rushing through a final prayer before the inevitable death, more than compensates for the clichéd Biblicisms. I'm kind of saddened the tune wasn't made longer (it only clocks in at 1:30), but then again, its brevity adds to the poignancy. Besides, if I long for a longer version, I can always go for Manfred Mann's Earth Band's nearly 10-minute cover of it.

Anyways, while anyone can argue of the conceptual legitimacy of side two's closers, I'll admit that the stylistic experiments capping of side one are far more lightweight and are thus technically dispensable to the average listener, but even then, they're just good, fun songs that can't reasonably cause any uproar. "Winterlude" is a country waltz, a genre glaringly absent from the previous two albums, although it could have fit in quite nicely: what with the 3/4 piano chords, the shuffling drums, the walking bass, the speedy, mandolin-like guitar trills, the friendly country croon and the choral "ooh-oohs", how could this not sit comfortably in the company of "Living the Blues" and "Belle Isle"? And much like a good part of Self Portrait, the lyrics are hardly meaningful at all, just a simple, naïve love song to a woman with the bizarre name that is the song's title. It's catchy, it's short and sweet, and while it has no reason to be anybody's all-time favourite, it ought to put a smile on your face anyhow.

I suppose hatred for "If Dogs Run Free" is somewhat more understandable, as it has Dylan tread into beatnik jazz territory. Yes indeed, one of the backup vocalists ditches the gospel/country style in favour of scat singing(!) in the form of a quasi-call-and-response with Dylan's lead vocals, where he essentially speaks in a cool, jazzy monotone. Personally, I get a kick out of this, and I'm not exactly some big jazz fanatic, nor a big fan of scat singing, but what makes the tune isn't the vocals (although I like how Dylan kind of rambles about who-knows-what that's somewhat related to personal freedom, which I guess fits the looser jazz style he and his backup vocalist portray), but Al Kooper's fantastic piano playing. He displays all kinds of fantastic chops, from speedy trills, to dissonant chords, while going up and down the scale in a loose rhythm, though occasionally in tandem with the scat "melody". Obviously, it's not enough to make a highlight out of the song, but it adds some diversity to the album, which is alright by me.

Bob's own piano playing isn't nearly as impressive, but just like on "Father of Night", the piano playing on the remaining songs is just as effective. What's interesting is that the chord sequences he plays on the other piano-based songs, especially those on side one, seem rambling and incoherent, yet the way he cleverly weaves melody – and lyrics – around them makes them coherent, and adds to the intentionally confused attempts at introspection within them. The most glaring example of this is "Time Passes Slowly", by all means a better song to serve as a theme for the Dude's nonchalance and laidback nature in The Big Lebowski. After all, the lyrics, sung by Bob in a tired, desperate whine, paint a picture of someone doing nothing of importance, waiting for time to pass slowly "up here in the mountains" and "when you're lost in a dream", as if in a drug-addled or drunken stupor. And of course, the music is equally lazy, with the simple piano chords slowly descending as the melody passes on by, accompanied by some searing lead guitar that has that Robbie Robertson-esque tone; it partially contrasts the laziness with its jarring, sharp notes but that solo in the middle where the guitar is double-tracked and delayed adds to that lost feeling quite nicely. Even as the melody and chords have no specific hook (there are four verses with three different melodies, so it's hard to latch onto any melody), the song has a vibe that's definitely worth paying attention to.

The preceding "Day of the Locusts" is slightly more structured – at least there's a clearly repeating melody for verses and refrain – and the refrain itself does have a memorable melody, but it retains a vague feeling of confusion, this time in Bob's feeling of not belonging. The lyrics, as I understand, are about Bob receiving an honorary award from Harvard – at a time when the college had a cicada infestation, as noted in the title – where Sara Lowndes and David Crosby had to drag him to get it at the official ceremony, and boy is that fitting. The way the music, vocal delivery and lyrics come together to me paints a fine picture of someone with great disdain for pomposity in academia, and someone who finds the whole ordeal of ceremonies to be pointless and only confusing young students more with false expectations. In the verses, Bob describes a boring (for some) yet nerve-wracking (for others) wait time to collect his degree in an accurately cold way, with the piano chords kind of fumbling about, while the refrain goes for an intentionally fake uplifting gospel feel, with the pianos pounding, the organ whirling and the vocals mock-cheerily announcing "the locusts sang!", and the post-chorus instrumental interlude, with the keys now dancing about, twirling around slick, quasi-funky guitar chords, is the halfhearted celebration afterwards. One funny thing I've noticed in said interlude and subsequent verses is the "locusts" practically make a guest appearance, in the form of chirping organ fills, which doesn't mean much at all, but it's just one of those nice extra touches that the more obsessive music listeners can latch onto.

The side-two opening title track, which also happens to be my favourite song on the album, also has a mock-cathartic vibe to it. As most of the album seems to be about someone searching for meaning in life, "New Morning" does not represent the end of the search, but rather what the searcher assumes to feel when meaning has been discovered. This time, though, the pseudo-catharsis is done so well you're tricked into actually feeling it anyhow. Maybe it's the combo of shuffled acoustic guitars, twanging acoustic/electric country-rock leads, the rising, bright and occasionally swirling combo organ and the loud drumming that explodes with delight in the uplifting chorus. Maybe it's the lyrics, where Bob describes pleasant rural life – rooster crowing, rabbits running across the road, groundhogs across the country stream – and a great feeling of joy when experiencing the simple life from the moment the sun rises. Or maybe it's the melody and vocal delivery, which starts off calm and relaxed as Bob wheezes through the description of his surroundings as if his voice still hasn't recovered from night's sleep before reaching the exuberant refrain where Bob's now more energized wheeze is accompanied – and sometimes overpowered – by gospel vocals. Hell, even the brief instrumental bridge following the vocal bridge, a four-or-so-note descending moody French horn melody over the song's introductory chord pattern from Al Kooper – which he originally wanted to be a full orchestral moment instead – is a perfectly beautiful moment, a sonic landscape of the sun slowly rising, that makes you ignore any potential irony in the tune.

The following "Sign on the Window", the album's final strong highlight, is lyrically quite similar as a song extolling the virtues of family and country life as a possible answer to Dylan's queries/prayers. This one tackles the subject in a much more solemn way, with Dylan's unique piano playing back at the forefront –where his hands start playing at opposite ends of the keys before meeting in the middle in time for the refrain — and a beautifully melancholic melody, one of Bob's best. It's made all the better with the sighing way Bob delivers lines like "sign on the window says... 'lonely'/sign on the door said... 'no company allowed". Interestingly enough, the catchiest moment, the refrain, is not a "traditional" refrain; as a matter of fact, it's hardly a refrain at all, but a three-note piano bassline and pounding chords accompanied by melodically identical gospel vocals, expressing a kind of closure to the matter of searching for meaning in one's life without wasting space with words that would have cluttered things. Much like on the title track, Al Kooper wanted to orchestrate the tune, and while it would have fit perfectly in the loud, vibrant sound of "New Morning", I'm glad Kooper was only relegated to a brief instrumental bridge (again following a vocal one) here, as the tune's solemnity relies on the stripped nature of the arrangement. Still, that bridge – with a fluttering French horn part that's played so much higher in the instrument's range than normal you would think it's a fleet of flautists serenading you – gives you just enough of a taste of what Kooper had in mind, once again reminding you how much of an asset he was to Bob Dylan whenever he was around.

The two remaining songs pale in comparison, but since they're light country-rock grooves in the middle of their respective sides, they're not supposed to be taken seriously, although "Went to See the Gypsy" could be in the lyrical sense, at least. With the story being about a young impressionable man from a small town in Minnesota meeting an important figure – one known for being in Las Vegas with dancing girls – at a hotel, one could easily interpret this as being about Bob Dylan meeting Elvis Presley, his childhood musical hero. He never did meet Elvis, but supposedly the song was inspired by the Beatles' meeting with him, which I imagine they told Dylan about. Anyways, the song itself, with the flash-in-the-pan disappearance of the gypsy after the main character is urged to go back to see him by a dancing girl, could serve as an allegory of the suddenness of the chance to meet one's hero or something of the like. If not, it's just a fun story where the lyrics are almost obnoxiously simple set to a fine danceable groove of shuffled piano and drums and scraggly electric guitar and organ, one that can "move you from the rear", as the gypsy's dancing girl states. "One More Weekend" is much more familiar territory – sexual innuendo-based country-blues rock à la "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" – and there's a lot less to talk about in general, but the exaggerated vocals, the stinging guitar, and the clumsy blues piano fills, not to mention the somewhat ironic, even contradictory, gospel backup vocals (in the sense of merging the profane with the holy), all make it enjoyable, so there's that.

Overall, I give New Morning a slightly higher grade than its two predecessors; I still think that Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait are great, and the three albums are pretty consistent as far as quality of material goes (despite the reputation for the second of the three, there are no major lowlights in any of them), but I give New Morning a slight edge because a) it's slightly more ambitious, even if its ambition is in the form of simplistic themes that the other two albums do briefly touch upon, and b) it creates a sense of closure to Bob Dylan's first decade in music. This would be his last real album for 4 years, with only a soundtrack album (a good one, to be fair) and a half-assed outtakes compilation (from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions, no less) in between, and even those at the tail end of his hiatus. Yet even if it were his last album period, the combination of lyrics, rootsy music and the track order itself make it feel like a simple, homey farewell to his audience. How else do you explain the album concluding with "Father of Night"? I'm sure at the time that Bob had a sense that, if he wasn't going to retire for good, he would certainly want to focus on his personal life a bit more. Think of it as a subconscious swansong, if you will, even if ultimately a temporary one.

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