Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Dull roots, spring rain

You know, Desire is a damn weird mess. If I had to somehow compare it to the work of another writer, I would have to go with Neil Young's Hawks and Doves. Both albums seem to have themes (The former, innocence/guilt; the latter, doves/hawks), but both keep throwing up objections whenever it seems they're sticking to the theme. Alright, starting an album review by referencing a more obscure album is probably a bad idea. Let's do it again...

Allen Ginsburg's ridiculous liner notes for Bob Dylan's Desire, worthless as they are, do fit the album in a strange way. Coherent-if-pretentious liner notes, like Blood on the Tracks got, would be way out of place for an album like this. It's not every album, or even every Dylan album, that leads with an unabashed protest song (Hurricane, which is about the framed (?) boxer Ruben Carter), then follows up with an unabashed protest song, Joey, protesting in favor of an actual mob murderer and wannabe boss. It's really not a coherent album... unless it is.

One thing Desire unquestionably is is Bob Dylan's Great Adventure Album. Oh, sure, Dylan had written plenty of songs with either lovers or him sailing overseas, getting sent to jail, even getting killed here and there, but these are Great Adventures out of Jack London, or Ernest Hemingway, or Daniel Defoe, or H. Rider Haggard. There's Hurricane Ruben Carter, potential middleweight champeeen of the woooorld, instead of poor Hattie Carroll, maid of the kitchen. There's Klondike Bob, riding across the icy fields to get a gift for his past and future wife Isis. There's Tropical Bob, inviting a wife or a lover to Mozambique to see all the gorgeous people.

We get Bwana Bob, of unspecified relation to a smooth-backed meadowlark seer, in One More Cup of Coffee (one of his most sinister love songs, reduced to solo organ to wonderful effect on the eponymous debut of The White Stripes). We get Christian? Egyptian? Incestuous? Literalistic? Bob of Oh Sister, another candidate for "most sinister." We get the sad tale of a bloodthirsty gangster with a heart of silver, or maybe tellurium, in Joey, which may well be the most disturbing protest song ever written. We get a Romance in Durango, with the bloody faces, whispering ghosts, and ambushes common to any smart, ambiguous 60s western (do you know of any?). Finally, we get the apocalyptic shiver of Black Diamond Bay, which Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva Bob conjures, personalizes, and then destroys -- "there's not much happening there".

And floating on all the cooling lava, there's the most straightforward song Bob ever wrote. It's just Bob, it's just Sara, and he misses her so. He knows all the answers to his questions, he knows why she left, but he keeps asking them three years later. It's a pointless song and can't bring her back, but that can't stop him from singing it, later. He finally finds, in other words, that diamond he was searching for, back in Isis.

It's a weird slate of songs, as prickly and inaccessible and contradictory as the songs of "Blood on the Tracks" were inviting and mesmerising and coherent. Somehow, with the exception of Joey (BLECH), it works.

Wait-- this is an album, not a collection of poems. Well, musically, the collaboration of Jacques Levy takes Dylan in a new direction. As the outtakes that have been released since testify, it was a thoroughly rewarding direction, with interesting melodies and unexpected choruses everywhere. The backing... no, that's unfair, co-lead vocals of Emmylou Harris dull the sharp edges of Dylan's voice the same way that his old friend Joan Baez's used to, but the effect is much more suited to this album than to those old acoustic songs. His voice alone would be lost in the sprawling jungles of instrumentation created by his six-man band of... creative instruments (fiddle, Bellzouki, accordion, in addition to piano, guitar, drums, bass, and harmonica).

One final word, about Scarlet Rivera. Far from being, as has been suggested, one of Dylan's worse ideas, she practically deserves a co-artist credit, as her violin playing is the lead on nearly every track. Her work on Hurricane particularly sizzles, but she's great on everything. Not nearly as great, though, as she was live on the Rolling Thunder tour. The versions of Isis and Romance In Durango here, nice as they are, just can't hold a candle to the forest fires sparked by her bow live.

BTW, sorry for the delay. I was busy getting married, as was my most faithful reader. We shall strive to do our respective duties more often, now that we have returned.


Blogger RW said...

Let's just say I find your comments strange and unusual.

Desire is, I think, one of the strongest discs Dylan released in the 1970s; actually, come to think of it, it was the last all-round fine (for the most part) record he made until Time Out of Mind, although he did have good songs here and there on thoroughly patchy albums. God knows Slow Train Coming, Street Legal, Shot Of Love, Saved, Infidels, Knocked Out Loaded and (despite the fact that it's a personal fave) Empire Burlesque are messy (even shitty) at some level, but that's the last word I would use to describe Desire.Possibly, I'm biased; it was the first Dylan record I ever purchased, and I saw him with the Rolling Thunder Revue (captured on Live 1975) the same year. There's a slight nostalgic buzz to it, perhaps, but 28 years has not dimmed my affection for the record, which has held up to countless plays.

Like its predecessor, Blood on the Tracks, it has an exceptionally strong set of songs. There's the hypnotic narrative drive of "Hurricane" -- a kind of impassioned journalistic profile set to music -- the intense beauty of "One More Cup of Coffee", the loping, idiosyncratic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along tales of love and danger in "Isis," "Romance in Durango" and "Black Diamond Bay," and, in "Sara," one of the most powerfully personal and direct love songs he's ever written.

I agree "Joey" is the weak point; from a common sense point it's just plain wrong-headed, and it has easily one of the worst of all Dylan lines: "It was true that in his later years he would not carry a gun/`I'm around too many children,' he'd say, `they should never know of one.'" (Joey Gallo, gun control advocate.)

It's not my favorite Dylan record, but I listen to it rather more than I do some of his earlier and presumably greater ones, like Another Side or John Wesley Harding.

12:46 AM  

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