T for Tom

Day 40 – Fallen Angels – 2016

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 31, 2016

 

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This has been the most beautiful, surprising, and peaceful way to end this retrospective. Fallen Angels and Shadows In The Night, both. One follows the other, and neither is forsaken for it.

Fallen Angels, like Shadows, consists of 12 tracks, all but one of which was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra. The difference this time around, and immediately noticeable in mood, is that the tracks selected for Fallen Angels were all written by Johnny Mercer. What’s that mean? Think of this record as Dylan’s Nat King Cole to his own previous Sinatra.

It’s lighter, airier, has more bounce. It’s like coming out of the fog. When the two records are played in sequence (as I have), you can really feel the air let out of your clinched lungs. It’s a sigh of relief.

Additionally, the music is once again supreme. I think that’s the greatest indictment on these two records, and why they stand out so well. It’s music that sound anachronistic and out of time. And yet, this album is only five months old, recent, fresh, modern. This is new music. And what it proves is that no one makes music like this anymore. To hear Bob Dylan do it sounds to my ears like the first time its been done. That of course is false.

Like any of the previous, oh say, five records, there’s a sure tip of the hat to the past. But with Angels, its not even a tip – this is straight up mimicry. But for his voice, which is extremely unique if not downright blasphemous at times, and the tender touch that his band gives the music, it emerges like something never done before, even though its pulled right out of 1960.

I don’t think it was meant to be anything special or ornate or gigantic. It’s meant to be exactly what it is, and that’s a little bit of time spent singing the songs that people used to cherish.

These are the songs that should live on forever. Bob Dylan was just the first to notice, and now stands as the catalyst by which the songs, and he too, become infinite.

What a career.


Song: “Skylark”

If you can find it, “Skylark” is the sweetest, most tender track from the album, with a beautiful guitar solo to end. But Fallen Angels isn’t available on Spotify.

 

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Day 39 – Shadows In The Night – 2015

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 30, 2016

 

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What fantastic design.

I am full of regret that I had glossed over Shadows In The Night upon its release, because it’s incredible. I mean truly beyond belief, unbelievable that at the age of 73, Dylan can resurrect his voice and outdo Frank Sinatra at his own game. Shadows consists of ten songs all originally recorded by Sinatra, but on the strength of the arrangements and the performance of the band (again), it comes out on top. Moreover, it speaks for his age, his wisdom, and seems like something he’s been destined to do ever since he reincarnated as the Phoenix some years ago.

As a fan of Frank Sinatra’s early years spent with Nelson Riddle, before moving on to swing and jazz, this album truly speaks to me. The selection of the tunes and the treatment that each is given jerks at the strings of the heart and pulls on the wisdom of time.

This album is about the voice, as it should be, and seems like a terrible idea. This was the reason that I just, honestly, never listened to it. Even though I purchased Tempest upon release and cherished it for its languishing tales, it was the coarsest performance of his dwindling vocal abilities yet. The idea of that same voice, like a slow crawl across a concert floor, doing covers of Frank Sinatra was just too much for me to consider. But its done with finesse, class, and sincerity.

It sounds like Bob Dylan is actually speaking for himself again, in the same way that “Sara” closed off Desire, and how Blood On The Tracks is all truth. It can only make sense. He’s 28 years into the Never Ending Tour and continues to shell out albums like its passing out candy for him. But at the age of 75 after a life lived hard, there comes a moment of introspection that must make him wonder, how much longer? How much deeper and further can I go before its over?

These questions can only lead to here, to Shadows In The Night. Like Frank Sinatra Sings Only For The Lonely, these are the albums that must be listened to in quiet, mostly alone, with only your thoughts and, worse, your memories to keep you company. It’s the sound of life gone by, the reflection. Naturally, the cover features Bob Dylan sitting in the Thinking Man pose facing left – staring back.

And really, nothing makes me cry like songs like these. Empty, hollow, with only a drooping trombone and the occasional trumpet spur to greet our ears, I feel older just with a listen. But I also feel better.

I am not alone as I go through this life: there are always shadows in the night to walk alongside.


Song: “What’ll I Do?”

It’s hard to pick a single song off this record, some for their similarity, some for they’re all great. I find this one to be most on point, “what’ll I do when I am wondering who is kissing you?”

Day 38 – Tempest – 2012

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 29, 2016

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Another bit of speculation led to people thinking that Tempest might be Bob Dylan’s last record, because Shakespeare’s last play was titled “The Tempest.” Bobby struck this down saying emphatically, “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain “Tempest”. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.” Whatever, man.

Of course he’s written more records since, but Tempest comes as a charge, a dark reach into the ether. Furthermore, I can say that it’s the strongest collection of stories he’s written since the start of his career.

Chief among them is the title-track, a thirteen-minute screed on watching people react to the sinking of the Titanic, “some nobly, some horribly, when put to the ultimate test.” It can rightly be called an allegory for today’s fate, as it sings and swims over the waltzing melody, like a carnival eulogy for fools. There are other great stories among the songs, and it feels again like he’s gotten hold of that chord inside him whereabout he wrote such classics as “Bear Mountain Picnic” and the “The John Birch Society Blues.”

For the strength inherent in tapping into his best work, we’re given a surprisingly great album. The split opinion of all the critics ranges from “among his best work” to the “best album of his late career.” I can see both sides of the argument.

Like Modern Times, the sound is direct and on point – the voice comes through strong, even though it sounds like leather these days. Where Together Through Life had just a bit too much arrangement going on, there’s only the sweeping dancehall tunes to greet us on this harrowing record.

It’s another achievement in art and sound, as well, as the duotone photograph on the cover depicts the face of the Moldau goddess of the Pallas-Athene Fountain in front of the Vienna congressional hall. More interestingly, it’s an edit of a photograph he found on someone’s personal Shutterstock, and not a professionally contracted work of photography. Nonetheless, the striking cursive TEMPEST across the top with a beautiful, subtle yellow script of his name in a simple Times New Roman font. It carries that fateful feeling, like the stories within.

And that’s the summary of life, according to Bob Dylan. Storms and shelters.


Song: “Pay In Blood”

I had put “Duquesne Whistle” here because it gets me dancing, but “Pay In Blood” is the best track that symbolizes Tempest, and it’s a damn good song. The drop groove heading into the chorus gets me every time.

Day 37 – Together Through Life – 2009

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 28, 2016

 

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With his legend solidified and his status certain, Bob Dylan returns again to the true source of his complexity, lost love. Together Through Life features ten songs about heartache, longing, and spite. And while some things come back around, some things are still new.

And by new, I mean there’s an accordion on the entire record. The whole thing. But its not out of place, as the whole album carries a saloon feel from the bard on the stool singing to the sad, lonely crowd. And in spite of its weight, there’s a feeling of resignation, as though the end is near or arrived and life will carry on anyway.

It’s a fitting feeling after all, having reestablished himself so well in the previous ten years. Here on out it feels like Bob Dylan is going to keep carrying on. With what, we can’t be sure, but we’ll know he’s going to keep doing it.

This time there are backing performances from members of the Heartbreakers again, and all but two of the songs were co-written with a member of the Grateful Dead. But what I enjoy most in this late stage career move, is the combination of art and sound.

There’s a photo on the album cover of two lovers intertwined in the backseat of a car, the male without a shirt on staring out the back window. The picture was taken off the cover of a collection of short stories, but borrowing is unimportant and even less surprising by now. It could mean a lot of things, but pictured in black and white it gives a representation of the past, ghosts of loves before. You can see in it the feeling that for awhile everything was right, and good, and together in place.

We hear the stories then and are implied to “say hello to Mary-Ann” if we ever go to Dallas, and tell “her sister Lucy [he’s] sorry” if we ever go to Houston. Travelin’ isn’t new to this story teller, or any American storyteller for that matter. Some people just can’t stop moving.

And for all the places it goes, it never loses touch with gratitude. There’s not one song that doesn’t leave you with the feeling of satisfaction, and I’m left wondering if he actually made it together through life with someone, or was just grateful that he got to try. Unimportant, I guess.


Song: “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”

This sounds like old love, and talks like life: “I feel a change comin’ on, And the fourth part of the day’s already gone.”

 

Day 36 – Modern Times – 2006

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 27, 2016

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Modern Times coasts near to perfection. I want to get that out of the way, to let you know. In case you’ve never listened to it, go now and do so immediately. A couple facts to back that up: it was Bob Dylan’s first number-one-charting record in 30 years since 1976’s Desire, and went number one in a total of 11 countries, including Germany, Canada, Australia; it sold over 4-million copies in the first two months after release, and has sold over 6-million copies total; and Dylan won his 7th and 8th Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Rock Vocal Performance (no seriously, he won for his voice). It remains one of his highest acclaimed albums, and is worthy of all praise. I’ve been waiting for today ever since I started this retrospective, and finally I can see it for more than the record I already loved – Modern Times is validation.

It hits you like lightning from the start, as the “Thunder On the Mountain” kicks off with a booming, rolling introduction of guitar and drum before giving way to that outlaw country rhythm. It sounds like the prairie, but feels like triumph. Within the first opening seconds, listeners can immediately tell – something’s different here. But man, it’s confident.

Where Dylan was trying to recreate something with both Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he manages to recapture something with Modern Times – quite possibly the spirit of America. This album is notably the first record to feature original artwork not including his face since Knocked Out Loaded, and the blurred taxi itself speaks volumes for how in-touch this record is, with one foot planted squarely in the past and the other moving forward. Iconography like this reinforces the power of the industrial imagination, and even if you don’t believe in the American Dream, it can make your own dreams possible if you embrace it well enough. This is our music, after all. And when you can imagine tales of the frontier west told through cowboy folklore, the idea of a bright light bright city future isn’t far off. The contradiction that naturally exists in filling a record called Modern Times with songs like “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder On the Mountain” feels right – we got to where we are by looking up from where we were, the quintessential mobility narrative.

Most of the album reimagines traditional tunes in foot-shuffling ways, including “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Nettie Moore,” and “Spirit On The Water.” By simply reworking the songs into a two-step, Bob Dylan makes his most commanding vocal appearance since Saved, drifting and swooning easily in and out, high and low through the stories of rainy days and dark skies. “Spirit On The Water” is one of my favorite songs he’s ever sung.

And where the previous records failed, Modern Times succeeds in spades. The sound, as compositionally different as it can seem from his rock’n’roll hits, still comes at you like a Dylan record – his voice upfront with a band that plays to it, and not the other way around.

Every time I hear it I think of that image on the front, and it just all makes sense. Then again, New York exists as an idea to me, having never been there. But if I were to go, I hope it would feel like Modern Times. The kind of New York that exists in the finest American literature, where the people never sleep and the music plays loudly and everyone moves in all directions under dark nights and lamplights and dances to jukebox tunes of jazz in smoke-filled rooms built with American dreams and moving fast into tomorrow. That’s Modern Times.


Song: “The Levee’s Gonna Break”

This song always sounded like the slow motion of a big city at night, which goes hand in hand with the album art.

Day 35 – Love and Theft – 2001

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 27, 2016

 

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Love and Theft came out on 9/11, for what it’s worth. It doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’s always a piece of trivia. Using the pseudonym Jack Frost, Bob Dylan produced his 31st studio album on his own. It was released to universal praise and acclaim, and this is the first time I’ve ever listened to it.

It would undergo scrutiny for having lifted lines directly from Diary of a Yakuza, but I don’t understand the point of that line of thinking. Only the people who’ve never written anything or done anything creative can stand back from creation and say, “you can’t take others’ ideas.” And so it goes that the author of Yakuza said he was honored if it was true that Dylan stood on his shoulders a bit.

Which is most of the point of Love and Theft, as Bob Dylan stands heavily on the musical shoulders of those before him. I’d call it Americana rock’n’roll, but I guess the official term is roots rock – whatever it is, this album sounds like the old frontier, or at least the beginnings of rock’n’roll in the age of television. While it’s great, it’s an homage, less a beginning – in order to start over, Bob Dylan has clearly had to go back, back to recreate the sounds of youth.

Coming after Time Out of Mind, it’s exactly what the man needed (or at least sounds like to me, as a listener). He found something good with Time Out of Mind, and the people liked it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these albums and all these songs, Bob Dylan cares deeply about what the people want, even when he purposely contradicts their expectations.

And Love and Theft defers, comes in the fact that for the first time, he’s composing fully arranged tunes based on traditional music, rather than just acoustic guitar tunes. The result is good, but missing slightly on the spirit of the man.

This is a good album, though not quite as ornery as Time Out of Mind. And I know through personal favor and foresight, that it all comes together a few years later. I’ll tell you more about how when that album arrives tomorrow.


Song: “Sugar Baby”

In an otherwise upbeat and rocking record, it’s the stormy lullaby at the end that stands out.

Day 34 – Time Out of Mind – 1997

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 26, 2016

 

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What a breath of fresh air. Time Out of Mind really is the prodigal return that everyone says it is, and it really is from out of this world. But that’s the problem I’m left with, and it validates why, here to now, this was my first time listening to it all the way through.

That reason being that for all its grand achievements, it is artificially Bob Dylan. It’s a great rock’n’roll album for anyone to make, worthy of its Album Of The Year Grammy award, but it somehow isn’t a Bob Dylan record.

Daniel Lanois, the producer behind 1989’s Oh Mercy comeback among many other 80s albums of note, returns with Dylan for this album. And while Dylan approached Lanois, happy that for the first time in a decade he had a book of songs all written, he ceded too much control to Lanois in the studio – looking for an atmospheric sound, Lanois would strategically place the microphones away from the voices and instruments, and the whole thing rings like an echo in space.

On key tracks like “Standing In The Doorway,” “Trying To Get To Heaven,” and “Cold Irons Bound,” Bob Dylan seems perched on a stool in café bar in space, reading from a book while the music drifts and sways behind him. The feeling, the words, and the atmosphere is strong, but it seems more likely to appear on Tom Waits’s Nighthawks At The Diner than on anything Bob Dylan has ever made. Because he never faked anything. Time Out of Mind, so strong and liquid and detailed, is just a bit too much for the man who lived by his words and his words alone.

To channel that fact, Lanois approves the longest song of Bob Dylan’s career, The Highlands, to make the album, all 16-minutes of it. A fan of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Lanois tries to capture that same feeling, but drops flat. “Highlands” as the closer on this album, falls in line in every mood except for length. Where “Desolation Row” captures an idea (albeit one of absurdity), “Highlands” drifts around, slowly following a sleepy musical backdrop that never much seems to go anywhere. It tells a story of a man going to different places, and doing strange things, but it without a chorus or bridge, becomes the pinning track of a poet reading from a stage. Something I’ve never much envisioned Dylan to be.

We have to thank for that image the sound of Time Out of Mind, which at least thematically is in line with the album’s title. This is a record from somewhere else, out of place, out of time. And it’s legendary, and will live on forever for this.

But it just doesn’t speak for Bob Dylan. He’s said as much himself, and no one except Bob Dylan has served as producer on a Bob Dylan record since.


Song: “Cold Irons Bound”

This song is the embodiment of everything I said above – cold, dark, seething and fast, there’s a monument of rock’n’roll sound going on behind Bob’s voice, and it tumbles and rolls. It won Rock Record of the year, and remains a great song. But have you ever heard a Bob Dylan song like this one before?

Day 33 – MTV Unplugged – 1995

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 24, 2016

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Bob Dylan didn’t want to play his own music, but there appears to be a lot of renewed energy in the concert. Playing on MTV’s Unplugged, he had set out to perform only folk traditionals, but it appears was convinced by MTV to do his own originals instead. I’m not what to take from that.

It could be that he had been doing traditional covers for the last two albums, going on record as saying he was just trying to finish two albums and get out of a contract fast. But it could also be that he thought there was something to be said in those old folk songs, the same way he saw something when he got started.

What was going on in 1995? O.J. was acquitted, we were about to enter a second conflict with Iraq, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Thirty-five years after he first started performing folk tunes to make sense of the world, it appeared that the time to do so never ended. Ironically, this is hero turn in his own originals – when he flipped to pop in the middle-60s, it was to betray the idea he was a protestor, but now in the new millennium we look to those songs of love, losing, and loss as the more clear picture of hope in a hopeless world.

And so Unplugged becomes a master class in the Bob Dylan discography, not in an of itself the best performances ever, but a skillfully selected group of songs to please fans of any Dylan era. Filled with “Tombstone Blues,” “All Along The Watchtower,” Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35,” there’s a big hit from ever turn in his career. Even on “Rolling Stone” there’s the same energetic yowl of each word at the end of a phrase, carried further than his vocals allow but stressing the importance of our greatest American song. It’s near to the same way he sang in ’66 when he first performed in London to a chorus of boos, telling the crowd at MTV that he’s doing it his way, just as he had 29 years earlier. And just like those vocals, the band keeps the spirit high, the melodies, sweet, and there’s a genuine sense of appreciation and warmth, rather than eulogy, for each tune unlike we’ve seen in a long time.

The true gems are the appearances of two of his most ambitious epics, “Desolation Row” and “With God On Our Side.” It’s important as the first appearance on either song on a live album (though he’d of course performed them before), and also signifies what might lie closest to his own heart. Remember, he had to be pushed to play original tunes, and among a catalog of hundreds he chose these two.

“With God On Our Side” closes out the record, and would seem a poignant end to a rhapsodic performance. But for whatever reason, and he’s never given any, Dylan omitted the verses about the Germans and the Russians. The easy reading of this could be that he didn’t want to be seen as political at all, or anymore.

But if I had to take a guess, Bob Dylan was still a passionate man with hope for the world. But for the mystery of his life, he couldn’t make it so easy for us to figure out.


Song: “Desolation Row”

I’ve never really appreciated this song, near the longest of his career, even as it closed Highway 61 Revisited. But after hearing it a number of times, on the albums and in the performance videos, I can see why it’s among those that will live forever. This acoustic version cements that.

Day 32 – World Gone Wrong – 1993

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 23, 2016

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I’m watching No Direction Home as I write this now, and I can’t help but be repulsed by all these pasty, old, baby-boomer whites eulogize their childhood. There’s a little bit about Bob Dylan, sure, but he’s the only talking about how different he was from their own interpretation. Pete Seegar, Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, Maria Mulraud, even Suze Rotolo, pinning him down the same way all the articles ever did – the speaker of his generation. All the while he’s sitting there talking about the music and denying that he ever had any intention. Joan Baez gets it right, and is the only one, when she quotes a story whereby Bobby sits there with Joan and says “all these years later these people are gonna be writing about what I mean when I don’t mean anything.” Another equally good one comes from Van Ronk, stupidly talking about himself and not Bobby D, but he says “writing about things going on doesn’t make you political.” The rest of the people in this video can get fucked.

Scorsese, who directed this, failed in a big way – he paints a visual story in the same way that everyone got it wrong. There’s a point where Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, & Mary, looks excitedly at the camera talking about the Washington Protest and says, matter-of-factly, “that was the moment when history changed. History actually changed at that moment.” … The only thing that changes is Bobby, and the music along with him. Isn’t that it, the music? The takeaway here is that Bob gets booed off stage after stage in 1965 and ’66, and all the way he’s talking nonsense about what it is, to appease and to piss off all the people who booed and jeered. But nowhere does Scorsese acknowledge why – because Bobby was ahead of the Beatles doing Revolver, ahead of the Stones doing Aftermath, ahead of the Beach Boys doing Pet Sounds, and people just weren’t used to it yet. The target changes but the protest never left.

Following Bob Dylan, in this retrospective, shows me that the spirit of the artist can be broken. We’ll never hear him admit or commit that he did want to make a difference, but we know that his heart was broken, early and quickly. History never changed, it’s just one long line of misery. Brighter lights maybe, but disillusion always. If you thought at any moment that the world changed, it’s personal nostalgia as if you were involved in the fictional mechanics.

But Peter Yarrow was just the man who will always be remembered for covering a song of Bob Dylan’s. The great mind moved on, wrote some songs about this, wrote some songs about that, and after awhile banged out a record of acoustics about a world gone wrong that nobody would listen to.


Song: “World Gone Wrong”

“I can’t be good no more once like I did before.”

Day 31 – Good As I Been To You – 1992

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 23, 2016
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By far my least favorite album cover.

A couple things stand out about Good As I Been To You, some things I already knew with a short listen some years ago – it’s the first fully acoustic record since 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, and it’s composed of nothing but traditionals and covers. This seems to be have been done on purpose, taking the name to mean something literal.

The title is, after all, a conjecture: as good as Bobby’s been to us, he’s probably never felt respected, at least not in the way he wants or needs. It tells me also, that for all the different ways he’s tried (and oh he’s tried so many), there seems to have been only one that ever received universal praise. That being the acoustic one, that being the one he’s coyly returned to 30 years later.

It’s not to say that it isn’t worth a listen. I went to it some years ago, I don’t fully remember, but I recall that my opinion was good – hey, after all this shit, he got good again before we like to recall. Not with Time Out of Mind, not with Modern Times, but seemingly always and even when he’s not trying; for its lack of originality, it’s the master at work. Some of the compositions are right in place with anything from his self-titled debut, and this 1992 version of “Sitting On Top of the World” is one of the best versions of a song that’s been covered by nearly everyone.

Also though, and something we’ll see from here on, is that each record seems to be done merely for the sake of doing. I mean, hell, he’s put out two albums inside this most recent calendar year in 2016. It just seems like he’ll never tire of making records, or at least never tire of the idea that he should.

It’s going to be a repeated refrain to the end of this retrospective. Sometimes it’s folk, sometimes its blues, sometimes its heartland, but it’s always Bobby D and it’s always good. And I think that’s the compromise: we shouldn’t expect him to change the world again, but he’s proven enough that everything he’s going to do from this day on is at least worth our time.

As good as he’s been to us, I can settle for that.


Song: “Tomorrow Night”

Man, what a blues tune.