Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Random Release: A Man of Eras

I have very few qualifications for reviewing this album (or artist) aside from the fact that I’ve heard it and have formed an opinion, of which I am entitled and so it is therefore valid. But where I lack in credentials is that I am not steeped and permeated in all that is and should be Bob Dylan. And you know, maybe that’s a good thing.

Dylan is an artist of eras. I think everyone who knows anything about the man would agree to that. Greenwich Village folkie, protest years, that thin, wild mercury sound, his country forays (my personal fave), whatever Self Portrait was supposed to be (likely a genius we have yet to unravel), his 70s Rolling Thunder Revue “comeback,” his 80s born again Christian/creative slump, a near stint with the Grateful Dead, the Traveling Wilburys, rediscovering his roots in the early 90s, and then his most recent, triumphant, “return to form,” blah, blah, blah comeback and continued resurgence that began with Time Out of Mind in 1997 and continued with this one, ‘Love & Theft,’ from 2001.

Again, I say it’s a good thing that I’m not overly saturated in all things Dylan, because then I'm not prone to either a) overly gush or b) be overly critical. And having said that, I do know quite a bit about the man, the myth, the legend and his career. I’ve heard most every album (at least in part) and I definitely have some favorites amongst all of the various phases of a very long and complicated musical journey. What’s very interesting to me about Uncle Bob is that unlike most artists of his generation, he never stopped. Until the mid 90s, he put out an album of new material consistently every year or so and even since then has gone no longer than five years between releases. This is nothing like many of his contemporaries who (wisely) stopped sometime in the 70s and only reconvened for the sake of cash and nostalgia intermittently in the 80s, 90s and 00s, almost always producing extremely lackluster material. So the credit you have to give Dylan here is that while he definitely released some stinkers (and I’ll get to that more in a minute), at least he was still out there and didn’t take 10, 15 or 25 years to write an album’s worth of songs that still weren’t worth the wax to make the vinyl. And really, let’s face it, a lousy Bob Dylan song is better than just about anything someone like David Crosby ever attempted to produce.

I’m a latecomer to the BD camp. In high school and earlier days it was a name I’d simply heard and by college when I "got wise," I was staunchly opposed to the idea of Bob Dylan. He was hippie rock and I hated hippies (and still do). I admit I was completely wrong, but that’s the superficial media image, the casual glance, the dust cover on the Book of Bob. I can remember being not long out of college and hearing Time Out of Mind played in a record store and thinking, “Ok, this is pretty good stuff,” but again, it was Bob Dylan and I was still within my “anti classic rock” phase (man, I was so stupid when I was 23…I’ve had to repurchase so much stuff…anyway…) and just tucked that sentiment away for safe keeping. And then sometime in the early 00s I really got into the Go-Betweens who are HUGE Dylan fans and I somehow realized I needed to give the man an honest to goodness try.

A friend suggested starting off with Blonde on Blonde. The good thing about that suggestion is that it’s 19 songs at the absolute peak of Dylan’s most aggressively creative years, where he was churning out songs like CO2 and all of them great to brilliant. The bad thing about that suggestion is that it’s 19 songs and I had/have a rather short attention span. But I got hooked enough to next try out (again per suggestion) Blood on the Tracks…and from there it was on.

Even though ‘Love & Theft’ came out as I was first excitedly discovering Bob, I purposefully postponed purchasing any of his recent comeback material until I was more familiar with his older stuff, the stuff that made him so vital and his comeback so important in the first place. Really, with hindsight, that wasn’t necessary. Again, Dylan is a man of eras, and while it’s pretty easy to pull a Bob Dylan track out of a 50 pack, each one of his chapters is so distinct and unique within the mantle that is Dylan that you can really start out anywhere and not only find everything you need, but also whet your appetite for what more he has to offer. And while I am a Dylan fan in every way, shape and form, I’m also fine with the fact that some of his phases are just not for me. For example, I cannot stand 95% of the protest albums. Again, political music is not my deal, but really, I just find them dense and difficult and unlistenable. Likewise, his holy trinity of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are definitely brilliant, but (with the exception of Bringing It All Back Home) not likely what I’ll be reaching for when I’m in a Dylan mood. What’s more, his Christian/80s “slump” has not only some key tracks (which most everyone recognizes) but some highly underrated and grossly disregarded albums like Street Legal, Shot of Love, Saved (per a guy I know named Steve) and Infidels (to which Bill wrote a letter of apology that I wish I still had a copy of so I could reprint it here), all of which deserve some serious reconsideration. The deal is you can’t digest Dylan as a whole. I mean ‘Love & Theft’ is his 31st studio album. Any artist with that kind of output is going to have some low spots, but anyone who can give us songs like Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, I Threw It All Away and If You See Her Say Hello with such consistency can’t run entirely out of steam, even if their brethren are sparsely scattered amongst a bunch of over the top gloss.
But the point to this post is ‘Love & Theft’ the album (I think). However, I’m going to digress a bit more here and voice my agreement with what I’ve read amongst other (more qualified/famous) Dylan fans…and it’s that I’m tired of this Dylan comeback arse kissing. Because Time Out of Mind and ‘Love & Theft’ were so absolutely great, critics are again assuming the man can do no wrong and are immediately giving his releases 5 stars without even taking the wrapper off the CD case. (Maybe it’s time for a Self Portrait deluxe reissue.) I’m glad they’re going in with a positive attitude, but I don’t care how you slice it – Modern Times is a boring album. It’s competent, it’s pleasant, it’s well executed, but it has as much personality as the dead possum I saw in Jason Smith’s front yard this morning (Jason, if you’re reading this, you might wanna look into that). And while 2008’s Telltale Signs was a fine batch of alternates and outtakes, it was still culled from sessions and songs that we already knew were fruitful and inspired. There was nothing about it or Modern Times that really made me want to run out and purchase Together Through Life (and that stupid cover isn’t helping) ‘cos the best I’ve heard is that it’s Modern Times with an accordion on every track. Big deal. An album with no personality and an accordion is nothing more than sleepy polka music. But if there’s one thing ‘Love & Theft’ has, personality.

Now I’m sure when ‘Love & Theft’ came out there was some skepticism. Let’s face it, Time Out of Mind may have been a fluke, like Oh Mercy or Empire Burlesque. But for me, ‘Love & Theft’ is as close as Uncle Bob has come to recapturing the spirit and essence of his “heyday” mercurial vision in the mid 60s. This album is a bit of a joyous mess as he explores styles and attitudes with reckless abandon. But it’s such a pleasant jumble that even if it lacks the fluid cohesiveness of Time Out of Mind, the laid back feel good of Nashville Skyline or the intimate, coffee shop intensity of Freewheelin’, it bubbles with so much enthusiasm that you really can’t wait to see what direction he’s going to go next. This is a trip through the music of yesteryear – various blues, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley, old school country, it’s all here, as if Bob were going through his infamous collection of old 78s and saying, “Yeah, I’d like to do something like this.” And he's Dylan, so he does.
As I’ve said in previous posts, lyrics are often secondary to me, but Dylan is lauded by many as a poet and really, the visions he conjures here of a woebegone, deprecated South and the desperate often depraved men and women who wander through it, are the stuff of legend. Tales of deceit and death and the decadence of life, these are characters pulled from the plays of Tennessee Williams or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, images of a place and its people that have become so mythical in their gritty tenderness they’ve together become romantic, almost ideal. Dylan sketches with words and colors in with music, and though sometimes the colors are drab and depressing, they’re always enjoyable, drawing you into the stories he’s telling, the characters he’s giving voice to, even if they are nameless, relatively faceless, because ultimately he’s speaking for everyone and anyone who has found themselves in similar circumstances. There’s sweetness and sentimentality, bitterness and bile, regret and rage and an ultimate feeling of satisfaction in the essential dissatisfaction described on this album. These are snatches from the past that some people called a life, preserved for posterity, because for many the memory is still fresh and the reality isn’t too far away.

Fave tracks: Summer Days, Floater, Moonlight, Po’ Boy


Karla said...

Another great post! Even though I'm not a Dylan fan, I respect him.

Bill said...

I don't think I have the letter either. Infidels is a great album. It's very underrated. I think Time Out of Mind is still my favorite of the most recent "comeback".