Saturday, 15 July 2017


Bob Dylan "Blonde on Blonde"

 The first pop double album to be recorded and released was "Blonde on Blonde" by Bob Dylan and it is characteristic of Dylan as someone who broke with conventions. Having already released 6 lps in 5 years (two of which were released in the previous 12 months), in 1966 Dylan recorded sufficient material to be released across four sides. Having been variously a folksinger, a protest singer, a balladeer, a free associating symbolist and electric rebel, Dylan now made the move to Nashville, the home of conformity, to become a country singer.

With hindsight there seems an inevitability to all of Dylan's moves during the sixties. We can look back and see the trajectory he was on. But it must have seemed far from logical at the time. Dylan was at the height of his pop fame. He was having hit singles and hit lps. His audience was adulatory, poring over his lyrics, seeking enlightenment and deeper meaning, even when he was issuing semi-improvised works like much of "Highway 61 Revisited". Having done his electric shock lp stuffed with amped-up blues riffs and symbolist lyrics, Dylan was determined to find a different sound. He had a song called "Visions of Johanna" that seemed to require a new treatment. He had been performing the song in concert just accompanied by his acoustic guitar but a key lyric, namely "the country music station plays soft", is suggestive of the new sound he was looking for. Dylan himself described it as a "thin, wild, mercury sound". But I think of it more as a country music station playing soft.

Having had a go at recording some songs in New York with his by now usual cast of musicians, Dylan decided it was not working and on the recommendation of his new producer, Bob Johnston, decided to try recording in Nashville with session musicians who played on the prevalent country hits. This must have seemed quite a move. The foremost avant-garde pop artist of the day wanting to record with the most conservative, paid by the note, you hum it we'll play it recidivists. But Dylan could hear precision in their playing and a willingness to create instant arrangements as well as a sensitivity to the demands of the song. On the finished album, the musicians play with sympathy, they are used to accompanying singers and accentuating the vocals. They emphasise and reflect the rhythmic flow of Dylan's lyrics and underscore how heavily Dylan relies on rhythm in constructing his lyrics, the beat and flow of a line means more to him than the actual meaning of the words or images that are conjured. These might or might not mean something under later analysis but this does not interest Dylan. I think that this is something that literary analysis of Dylan's lyrics miss. The first purpose and meaning of the lyrics for Dylan is their rhythm, all else is secondary if it even registers at all. If meaning was everything then Dylan would take care to preserve the meaning of the lyrics in his live performance. Instead, he experiments and varies both the rhythm and the melody in his performances, searching for a new meaning, a new truth. Their meaning is not fixed therefore but can only be determined through performance.  

And yet the songs seem rooted in meaning. The titles remain elliptical such as "Temporarily like Achilles" or "Obviously Five Believers" but the emotions they convey and the situations portrayed are real enough. The melodies are enticing and this may be Dylan's prettiest recorded work. Occasionally, the playing is transcendent such as Paul Griffin's piano work on "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" or the precise guitar work on "Fourth Time Around". If I have one complaint (actually, I have two but we will come to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in a minute) it is that the bass parts are sluggish and lack variance. "Visions of Johanna" suffers particularly from this.

"Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" is the one song that sticks out from the others on the record which is why it comes first, so as not to disturb the flow. This and the final song are probably the two I could live without. The final song is "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and this stretches out for some 12 minutes which in truth it does not merit. Melodically simple, it acquires some limited power through repetition but the tap tap tapping of the high-hat becomes wearisome quickly. There are no dynamics to the song. Once you hear the story of how the musicians thought the song was going to end before Dylan started on yet another verse it becomes impossible to listen to without picturing said musicians grimacing to themselves and wondering how much more there was to say. The song has no lyrical development either, being a list of things that Dylan's lover has ("With your mercury mouth in the missionary times, and your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes" etc). The chorus is particularly bad. "The sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes" is inelegant to the point of losing meaning and "my warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums" has no meaning to begin with. In the song "Sara" on his "Desire" album, Dylan describes how he stayed up for days in the Chelsea Hotel writing "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for his then lover. It is undoubtedly sincere and heartfelt but demonstrates how love can let you get carried away as Dylan loses his internal editor in his willingness to outpour. How ironic that the song that celebrates formative love is such a weak effort while the song that marks the end of the relationship ("Sara") is so utterly heartbreaking.

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