Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Twelve Best...Dylan Albums of the 70s (#4)

#4. New Morning

The albums that I’ve most changed my mind about since their first listen are John Wesley Harding, Time Out of Mind and New Morning. I didn’t dislike any of those three when I first put them into my CD player but I wasn’t blown away either. For JWH, I just wasn’t prepared for its laidback sound (which sounds totally ridiculous in retrospect) while for Time Out of Mind, I listened to it outside in the sun—not the correct way to listen to that album. When I gave it another chance in the dark and while I feeling was slightly depressed, its greatness finally registered for me. As for New Morning, I can’t figure why it wasn’t an immediate favorite, although I’m still not sure if it is now.

The album begins with “If Not for You,” which began as one of my favorites on the album but has slowly slide down upon every listen. The officially released version sounds a little too lazy compared to the far superior outtake on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3, which is odd because although it’s dominated by George Harrison’s presence, it’s actually slower than the New Morning track. But Dylan sounds more heartfelt—as if it’s true that without “you,” he couldn’t “find the door.”

One of the odder songs in Dylan’s canon has to be “Day of the Locusts.” Inspired to write the song after accepting an honorary Doctorate of Music (which is rather ironic considering Dylan can’t even read music) at Princeton University with Sara and David Crosby, he hated to be there and this was his way of getting back to all, to use Crosby’s description of all who intended, the “dickheads.” I enjoy the song but its really dependent of the songs around it; it couldn’t work by itself but on an album of a similar song, it works rather well.

“Time Passes Slowly” is a rather fitting title because it’s just a rather boring 2 minutes and 35 seconds that the song takes on the album. But the next track continues New Morning feel and is, I think, an amalgam of songs like “Day of the Locusts” and the material of Planet Waves. Of course, I’m talking about “Went to See the Gypsy,” which is a rather thinly veiled reference to Elvis Presley. It has the weird imagery that runs prevalent throughout “Locusts” (not to mention never referencing an individual person by name in either song) but has the lyrical feel of “Something There Is About You” from Planet Waves. Take, for instance, this line from “Something”:

“Thought I'd shaken the wonder and the phantoms of my youth
Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin' the hills of old Duluth.
There was me and Danny Lopez, cold eyes, black night and then there was Ruth
Something there is about you that brings back a long-forgotten truth.”

And this one from “Gypsy”:

“I went back to see the gypsy,
It was nearly early dawn.
The gypsy's door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone,
And that pretty dancing girl,
She could not be found.
So I watched that sun come rising
From that little Minnesota town.”

It’s more than their both mentioning Minnesota, but also that they’re both about having something or someone and the next minute, they’re gone while leaving nothing behind but they’re memory.

(Tangent: Here's an interesting Wikipedia link that lists all songs that make reference to Elvis.)

Is it bad that “Winterlude” isn’t my least favorite song on the album? No, that distinction would go to “If Dogs Run Free,” which really has no redeeming qualities. We know through Chronicles that Dylan went to lots of Coltrane concerts but that should be the closest he ever comes to jazz. As for “Winterlude,” it’s typically considered one of Dylan’s worst songs (New York Observer critic Ron Rosenbaum said this in his review of Modern Times: “The new album is possibly the worst since Self Portrait, with songs that rarely rise above the level of Dylan’s low point (“Winterlude”)—and everybody seems afraid to say so.” I respect your word, Ron, but you’re pretty much full of shit there. But I’m not going to argue about Modern Times) and while it’s not good in the strictest sense of the word, it is much better filler than “Woogie Boogie.”

The next four songs are why I put New Morning as the fourth best Dylan album of the 70s. They are “New Morning,” “Sign on the Window,” “One More Weekend” and “The Man in Me.”

The title track and “One More Weekend” both have a backwoods bluesy feel to them that fits Dylan’s mood during 1970. I think “New Morning” is the best non-ballad on the album while the unquestioned best song on the album is “Sign on the Window.”

Most Dylan fans have a few songs that they think are genius but aren’t spoken about nearly enough (mine include “She’s Your Lover Now,” “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” “Changing of the Guards,” “No Time to Think” and “Black Diamond Bay”) and “Sign on the Window” is exactly that. One of the saddest songs Dylan ever wrote, it tells of a female ex-lover who spurned Bob at one point for someone else and, in wicked form, posts a sign on her porch stating that “three’s a crowd.” It’s clear that he knew the trouble he was in before getting involved with her (“My best friend said, ‘Now didn’ I warn ya’.”) but he still went through it anyways. Then, in the final verse, he sings:

“Build me a cabin in Utah,
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout,
Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa,’
That must be what it's all about,
That must be what it's all about.”

But you know he doesn’t believe this—he’s just trying to convince himself of it. His disillusionment is the saddest part of the song, and of the album too.

“The Man in Me” is, outside of its semi-homoerotic title, a song that you don’t want to admit that you like, but can’t help it. It’s not particularly good but it has become wildly popular ever since being featured in The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. A friend of mine once told me it was his favorite Dylan song…yikes.

The final two tracks on the album are “Three Angels” and “Father of Night” and neither is memorable. If you look at his discography, it’s the first album to not have a great last song (Self-Portrait is excluded because it wasn’t done with the same intention of, for instance, Another Side or New Morning.) Considering this is his 10th album (once again, not including Self-Portrait), that’s pretty remarkable.

Recap: Some clunkers but worth it for “New Morning” and “Sign on the Window” alone.


MW said...

I wish Dylan dropped those last two songs and added "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" (the one later issued as a B-side, not the awful one issued on 'Dylan') and "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" from the same sessions. I'd actually lead the album with "Spanish..." and close with "Tomorrow..." Sequenced it like that, I'd find 'New Morning' very enjoyable start-to-finish. Not his best, but nice and solid.

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