Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
New Morning

For years people have been citing 1970’s New Morning as Bob Dylan’s “big comeback” without accounting for the fact that compared to its predecessor (1970’s nearly universally scorned Self Portrait) even an album of Dylan’s answering machine messages would have constituted a return to form.

And for years I’ve been saying that while New Morning has its moments, it was just another proof that Dylan lost the plot forever after 1967, the intensely creative year he spent informally recording a whole slew of brilliant songs with the Band at Big Pink and the very biblical John Wesley Harding with session musicians in Nashville. After 1967 (or so I’ve always argued) his ambition ebbed, he embraced both domesticity and a simplicity that to me sounds forced, and I pretty much stopped caring. If Self Portrait was indeed (as Dylan has said on multiple occasions) an attempt to forever offload his own fans among the Woodstock Nation, it worked. I didn’t much like his new Kuntry Kroon either.

But I’ve been coming around, albeit slowly, to the notion that Dylan didn’t stop mattering after John Wesley Harding. Sure, most of the albums that came afterwards lack the lyrical and thematic depth and scope of his earlier work, but when I listen to New Morning now I hear it as a kind of continuation of the free-wheeling, anything goes work he was doing with the Band in the most famous basement in West Saugerties, NY, or anywhere for that matter.

New Morning is not remotely in the same league as Dylan’s best albums, and wouldn’t be even if it weren’t deeply flawed. The fantastical word spew and wicked wit that characterized his best work are nowhere to be found–New Morning lacks the spite and scorn of his best solo work, and the hilarious tumbling of The Basement Tapes. I have often wondered what happened to Dylan’s surrealistic whimsy; it’s one of the things I love most about him, and he seems to have it lost it forever somewhere between The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. I hear distant echoes of it–I’m thinking in particular about some of the more fanciful lines in the high-spirited “One More Weekend”–on New Morning, but they’re few and far between.

What is different–and welcome, at least to my ears–about New Morning is that it doesn’t sound as one-dimensional as Nashville Skyline. Sure, it has its paeans to simple domesticity (see the title track, “If Not for You,” “Time Passes Slowly,” etc.), but musically there’s more going on (the infusions of aberrant jazz, for example) than there is on the howdy fella, country-infused Nashville Skyline.

Such songs as “Day of the Locusts” and “Went to See the Gypsy” are flat-out weird, and that goes double (and more) for the beatnik send-up “If Dogs Run Free.” New Morning is as strange, in its way, as Nashville Skyline is normal, which is enough to make me wonder whether in Dylan’s case “normal” was just another pose–yet one more mask he put on to keep the pack off his scent.

If Nashville Skyline is easy to please, and as friendly a hello as Dylan would ever offer up, New Morning is a diffident and complex affair. The Dylan of New Morning isn’t afraid to take both emotional and musical risks, and isn’t afraid of falling flat on his face either. In short, he shows ambition, audacity even, and it’s this return to audacity that is so welcome. (Was Self Portrait audacious? Yes, but in a purely negative sense. It took colossal chutzpah to put out an album so perverse, so designed to be off-putting; but what good, in the end, is an album so seemingly determined to make you hate it? Even if there are people out there masochistic enough to love it?)

Much of New Morning’s charm lies in its musical touches. Dylan may be nobody’s idea of a great piano player, but boy is he fun to listen to. And the infusions of jazz make this baby unique amongst Dylan’s works. And the album also signals a return to gut-bucket rock’n’roll, if only on the joyous and very straight ahead “One More Weekend.”

New Morning also contains a lot of songs that could be categorized under the label “Uncategorizable,” and if that isn’t a sign of audacity I don’t what is. I may dislike some of them (“Father of Night” makes me laugh, but I don’t think that was the reaction was hoping for, and that goes for “Three Angels” as well), but you can’t accuse Dylan of playing it safe, the way he did on Nashville Skyline. Nor does he retreat to the safety of covering other people’s work as he did on Self Portrait, although several non-originals (“Mr. Bojangles,” “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” etc.) were recorded during the New Morning sessions that didn’t make it on to the record.

Robert Christgau on Nashville Skyline: “The beauty of the album is that it is totally undemanding.” I wonder. “Undemanding” can be a virtue, but in the case of Dylan one suspects a trick. It is not enough to say that Dylan has always been the most demanding of artists, and one expects more from him. Even his most enjoyable LPs were work, and his sudden veer towards the shucks howdy of Nashville Skyline (“I’m jus’ a simple country boy tipping his hat to you right on the cover!”) will always strike me as a shameful creative abdication of sorts, even if he had (quite understandably) grown tired of the throne.

Dylan said of Nashville Skyline, “These are the type of songs that I’ve always felt like writing when I’ve been alone to do so. The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past.” I don’t believe him for a minute. He’s the same guy who wrote “I’m Not There,” after all, and the songs on Nashville Skyline sound calculated to my ears. In short, Dylan’s sincerity is only as authentic as how he feels at any precise moment. He might have said the same thing about “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or his unforgettable duet with himself on “The Boxer” from Self Portrait, the very title of which reveals a man who is very cagey indeed when it comes to nailing the “real Dylan” down.

On New Morning Dylan the gnomic poet makes his return, putting all those self-proclaimed “Dylanologists” back to work again parsing the meanings of his each and every word. Is “Went to See the Gypsy” about a visit to Elvis? Whose head is exploding in “Day of the Locusts”? (David Crosby, if you believe David Crosby.) And even the seeming throwaways (“Winterlude”) are strange in a way that none of the songs on Nashville Skyline are. Whether he be indulging himself in a jazzbo lark (“If Dogs Run Free”) or losing himself in a solemn meditation (“Sign on the Window”) he’s making music far weirder than any he’d ever made before; just listen to his piano playing on the latter cut if you don’t believe me.

When push comes to shove, I’m really only crazy about 5 of the 12 cuts on New Morning. The title cut sounds like a song he might have recorded with the Band, and offers up a more complicated take on the domesticity of Nashville Skyline. And musically it’s more complex, too; I hear echoes of Van Morrison, for instance, which makes me wonder if Bobby wasn’t listening to Van as much as Van was listening to Bobby at the time. “One More Weekend” is a raucous rocker and I’m always happy to hear it, just as I’m always happy to hear him return to a more absurdist take on his lyrics. “Day of the Locusts” boasts some lovely piano and a set of lyrics that match diffidence (“Princeton smells like a tomb, man, get me outta here!”) with sheer ecstasy (“The locusts sang, they were singing for me!”).

“Went to See the Gypsy” probably isn’t about a visit to see Elvis in Las Vegas, but whatever–I always get a kick out of hearing Dylan sing, “He did it in Las Vegas/And he can do it here.” And musically the song bops and bubbles and seethes, thanks to some wonderful performances by the Nashville session guys Dylan was putting his faith in at the time. As for “If Not for You,” I don’t so much love it as admire it; it’s a great love song with a lovely melody and nothing, not even my atavistic distrust of the “happy Dylan,” can keep me from appreciating its charms.

Dylan wouldn’t return with a real new album until Planet Waves in 1974, and I’m as ambivalent about it as I am about New Morning; if I thought the Band could save him, I was wrong. The Dylan who could effortlessly fill an album with great songs was long gone, and I don’t think–and I know I’m in the minority here–he ever came back; I have as many reservations about 1975’s Blood on the Tracks as I do about everything he recorded after John Wesley Harding.

But–and I suppose this is the bottom line for me–I find New Morning interesting in so far as Dylan sounds engaged. In its minor key way it’s an ambitious album, a maddeningly audacious one even. It’s the sound of a man getting out of his big brass bed and getting down to the brass tacks of wrestling with the genie of his immense talent. Hell, I actually turn it on occasionally, which is more than I can say about all of Dylan’s post-Basement Tapes albums, John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks included.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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