T for Tom

I Didn’t Miss It At All

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 17, 2017

It was going to be my first time out of the country, or at least the country that was my new home. You see, in America, where I spent the first 24 years of my life, I had never crossed into a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada. The distances were too far, the limits too great, the benefit too low. That last sentiment is surely wrong on all accounts, but it was the feeling I was given by my country – Mexico has nothing to offer, Canada is the same but colder. We never go, we never went.

But in Germany now for the first time, living and working with no end in sight, I had a grasp on the nearness of the countries, and by a large, unfilled whole in my working knowledge, I knew that each boundary meant separately unique, different, and succinct cultures and nations. I knew that each line was a defensive boundary built over hundreds and thousands of years and these simple lines meant new languages, new colors, new foods, new music, new politics, and new people. I had only been in Germany for six weeks but my appetite had grown immensely in the short time I had there. Each year in Belgium, the town of Bastogne celebrates its independence from Nazi Germany by staging a recreation of the march of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that held during the siege of the Ardennes forest over the longest winter on earth, and pushed the Nazis back. There would be foot marches with citizens from around the continent, battle reenactments, regalia displays, parades, and booze of all kinds. I knew I had to go.

It was only a few months before while still in training in Virginia that I had purchased my first Norah Jones album, a CD of The Fall. That CD became a soundtrack to a room that I shared with the only person to understand me in the Army, and we played a long game of chess by moving a single piece at a time between our bunks. But when I got to Germany (as did my friend, although to another unit in another village nearby), I finally had access again to the internet. I decided I needed the rest of Norah Jones’s albums and went about getting them. In order, I listened to each of them in full.

So there, that month after arriving in Germany, I sat in the back of a Mercedes TMP, the kind the military purchases in lots throughout Europe to facilitate quick ease of transport for these types of events. It was a recreational event, but as one that promoted camaraderie with the local nationals, could be given a leave of absence and promoted throughout our unit. We were able to check out the TMPs and drive ourselves on the unit’s dollar. Everyone that was attending the event had been given pass to leave during the day on Friday, but there were a few of us stuck behind for the change of command ceremony to welcome the new battalion commander. As my reputation as a reporter always preceded me, I was selected to give the commencement and was among that small group leaving afterward. I didn’t know the sergeants I was leaving with well and took the entire back seat to myself, the floors stripped of any carpeting, the heater not working. And I sat there listening to all of Norah Jones while the roads passed by.

In Germany, there are no billboards or stores or gas stations on the side of the highway. There are farms and villages occasionally, but the highways were built to be out of the way of the people in the towns, and their rules regarding pollution keep it free of clutter and light and noise. The sky that day was a typical German sky, the kind I miss most; a deep grey throughout from the clouds that only just might drop rain, with small breaks of white, though the sun never shone through. The hills of Bavarian green grazed our sides for hours as first we passed Frankfurt, then Cologne, and continued west. Slowly, the hills became larger and the vastness of the forests grew in height. All the while the sky stayed green, and only occasionally a small mist might develop on the windows, but never a hard rain. The forest of oaks turned to large, upward columns of pine, and it’s the closest I ever got to a Vermont winter, all the way on the other side of the planet.

The first words were always the most important to me, from the moment I heard them: “As I sit and watch the snow fall…” It’s a feeling I always wanted since I was a child. To wake up and see the drifts of white descending to the ground, a new world unfolding over the one we walk through every day. I had never had that. But vast pieces of art, works of literature, and entire operas have been devoted to the snow. I had known it my whole life, but never seen these things other people talk about, the things that are dressed up in language to describe home, belonging, warmth. Snow always meant a sense of place to me – the idea that you could have a place to yourself under warmth of a fire while the snow fell outside. It wasn’t snowing on this day, but I knew it would soon, maybe days and weeks later, but I knew the snow was coming. I knew I would finally have the feelings I was never given during Christmas, during winter, during the times we should be alone and at peace. I sat there in the back of the van alone, listened to Norah, and stared at the pine and knew I would have my winter moment for the first time, soon.

I wasn’t talking, no one talking to me. There were no sounds of cars on the empty highway. There were no sights of people on a road miles from the nearest village. There was only the pine going by the thousands, and the sound of a piano in my ear.

I didn’t think of anything specific. I only thought of the general years and lifetime before these first few weeks abroad. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Mojave 3 – Bluebird of Happiness

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on August 16, 2017

I have a playlist of 200 songs that remind me of the best, wildest, strangest years of my life, the sound track to my third life. This will be the first in a series chronicling just what a few of those songs means.

Rain pattered on the window as I stayed awake on the floor, eyes on the white, cantilevered ceiling. We were together on the floor unintentionally-intentionally because she was moving in two weeks and the furniture was already gone. This weekend was reserved for us to be together alone for the first time away from our friends, a chance to get closer. I drove us down to Munich that night in the dark, late on a Friday after I left work and picked her up from her home. The drive down was like the other times I’d driven to Munich on the autobahn, but a little darker and with a little more rain and with a girl I’d only just fingered the week before. It was her idea to go to Munich and I didn’t question the details, even now as I lay in a sleeping bag in an empty apartment.

The ceiling is the thing I remember most. How these types of homes in Germany and across Europe are so small, but so ample for a person. The spaces on the top floor are even worse, where we navigate the rooms that are built into the slopes of the exterior ceiling, one room drooping away from the center in this direction, the other room drooping in the opposite. It was like something out of all the black and white films I had ever seen, but I was living this one, a few minutes at time.

She was much younger than I, and I was only beginning to find out. She wanted to please me, do everything I asked, do anything I could think of and more, except for the few things she wasn’t ready to. Once we were through the door, and even while driving the two hours from Nuremberg, it was a constant series of questions about what I wanted, where I wanted to be, the things I wanted to do. I just wanted to fuck there in the apartment at some point over the weekend. After we parked my car that first night we went straight up to the apartment, dropped off our things, and out for dinner.

That night I learned that she wasn’t going to have sex with me. There on the carpet in a sleeping bag with two bottles of wine in us, I didn’t think much of it. But it was the morning I remember.

It was still raining but the clouds have a way of thinning out in Germany that provides enough high-grey light while raining and still keeping the sun from shining directly. I could see it was one of those days from the floor where I stared up at the ceiling. We were using her laptop computer for music, for the same reasons we were on the floor. It was silent as I woke up before her, dismissed myself to the bathroom and relieved myself of the night’s drinks. She had an eye open when I came back and so I turned on the computer thinking that I might get laid here.

I needed something quiet, peaceful, not overwhelming, and instantly I thought of the soundtrack to the O.C. Clicked onto youtube and started the first playlist I saw. We sat there on the floor necking and kissing and staring at each other before I moved my hands into her pants and really thought this time that she was too young and inexperienced, and I knew then why she wasn’t ready. Just never had before. She went down on me, and I knew from the way it ended that she’d never done that either.

I told her it was okay and stared back at the ceiling as she cradled into my shoulder, the rain still falling, the ceiling overhead illuminating with the rising sun and the soft words echoing over and over from the speakers: “Gotta find a way to get back home, gotta find a way back home.”

There are other things I remember. The locals in all the pubs celebrating the home team’s big victory, and the emptiness of being with a girl I knew I’d be leaving. I remember walking everywhere in the rain and sharing an umbrella that only sheltered one. I remember the weekend being like nothing I wanted, but leaving a lasting mark in my memory. And I remember, as much time as we spent in the apartment cooking food and drinking wine and laughing and not fucking, I turned the Mojave 3 on over and over again, time and time again, even though I’d just heard it for the first time during that rain-spilled Saturday morning. I remember lying there thinking of this girl and her wonderful innocence, and thinking that even as juvenile as the days had become, they were nothing less than sweet, and I remember thinking that even sweet has a place in my memory, like this day now holds. But mostly I remember lying on my back and staring up at that white ceiling, dotted with the shadows of the raindrops on the window, and I remember being hopeful.

I remember thinking that this was home. Not the girl, explicitly, nor Munich and Europe, necessarily, but the movements in my life. Movements forward had become my home and the only place I could truly be comfortable. Home for me will always be on the road.

Everywhere I go now, I take home, as a piece of mind, with me. Got to find a way back home.

Tagged with: , , , ,

2017 Midseason Review on Music

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on June 21, 2017

2017 Midseason Review

Halfway people, let’s talk about all the good music so far.

Image result for beach fossils somersault

1. Beach Fossils – Somersault – Beach Fossils previously made my favorite New York punk record, Clash The Truth, and there’s something in that phrase – “New York punk.” From a guy that’s never been there, there’s a certain amount of clout of what we think New York embodies – cold, cold steel, a life under the thumb. The Strokes and Interpol and have come close in our generation to speak for the youth of overcrowded America, but Somersault truly nails the sense of careless laissez faire for a world that’s got nothing left to offer its children – “All you got / was never had nothin’” is probably the line of the year.

Image result for slowdive slowdive

2. Slowdive – Slowdive – I have so many questions for this band. How do you disappear for nearly 30 years and get back together to make this record? How, if you’re capable of making something so timeless, classic, equally from the past as if from the future, have I never before heard of you, even if it was just one album before the breakup in 1991? What have you been doing in the interim to make these sounds possible? Maybe its best I never know and just enjoy the gift that is Slowdive. Viva.

 

Image result for father john misty pure comedy

3. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – It takes a couple listens to get through the writing that is so thick and so dense that at first its comedy upon itself – the metaphors so direct and the satire so clean that it’s almost aggravating that a major label artist can get away with writing something that on its surface seems so juvenile: an hour long ballad of angst toward the human race and its conniving modern existence, written mostly in the abstract. But, after a thorough couple spins, it’s really nothing short of magnanimous. Where it fails to show nuance, it breathes with guilt, and eventually Tillman tips his hand – he’s in this with us, and this is his suffering. Sincerely a wonderful piece of work from a genuine artist.

Image result for joey badass all amerikkkan badass

4. Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – I’ve never heard something both so gentile and violent at the same time. This is a New York rapper in the tradition of Nas, but somehow more poignant in a time of need. Where Nas and other rappers before may have been (rightfully) timid and spoken in generalities, Bada$$ isn’t beholden to such subtleties in world that he (rightfully) guesses need none. Where Father John Misty works around the problem with humor, Bada$$ goes straight home: “Start a Civil War within the USA amongst black and white and those alike / They are simply pushin’ us to our limit so that we can all get together and get with it / They want us to rebel, so that it makes easier for them to kill us and put us in jails / Alton Sterlings are happenin’ every day in this country and around the world.”

Image result for sylvan esso what now

5. Sylvan Esso – What Now – When I saw them this past spring their DJ table had “FtheNCGOP” in electric tape across the front, which read Fuck the North Carolina Grand Old Party (becauase Fuck the North Carolina Grand Old Party, among others). Sylvan Esso (Amelia and Nick) seem to be in tune with the feeling I hope we all have, at least those I know well among my age – what now? No matter what we say or do or shout or try to teach others, hate persists. And as I danced in the crowd of kids like me all jumping and singing to the music that filled us, I remember looking at the charge taped on that DJ table and thinking “the kids will be all right.”

 

Songs:

“Leaving LA” – Father John Misty – not a question in my mind this is the greatest song of the year – a “15-minute chorus-less diatribe” in the vein of Bob Dylan. Bereft of all but voice, guitar, and three strings, it’s the ballad for the ages.

“Land of the Free” – Joey Bada$$ – “The land of the free is for the free loaders, leave us dead in the street to be your organ donors. They disorganized my people, made us all loners. Still got the names of our slave owners.”

“Thinking of a Place” – The War on Drugs – you know that feeling of nostalgia and longing you get when you think of the best moments in your life? This is the soundtrack to that feeling, written about that feeling.

“The Glow” – Sylvan Esso

“Ascension” – Gorillaz – Vince Staples leads the British response to Joey Bada$$. “I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free, Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap, Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me: Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.”

“Tangerine” – Beach Fossils

“Do I Have To Talk You Into It” – Spoon

“Prisoner” – Ryan Adams – this man is ageless.

“Star Roving” – Slowdive –  ROCK N FUCKING ROLL.

“On Hold” – The XX

“Conrad” – SOHN – this man’s voice, man.

 

Albums:

Ryan Adams – Prisoner – **** – Truly challenges as his best record ever.

Alt-J – Relaxer – ** – Eight tracks so empty you’ll fall asleep.

At the Drive-In – Interalia – * – It’s not 2000 anymore.

Beach Fossils – Somersault – ****

Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic – **

Molly Burch – Please Be Mine – ***

Cold War Kids – LA Divine – **

Day Wave – The Days We Had – ***

Drake – More Life – ***

Bob Dylan – Triplicate – ***

Justine Townes Earle – Kids in the Street – **** – He’s at his best when he’s cheerful.

The Early November – Fifteen Years – ***

Elbow – Little Fictions – ***

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – ****

Feist – Pleasure – ???

Gorillaz – Humanz – *** – Everything about this album is great except for Damon Alborn’s own contributions.

Aldous Harding – Party – ***

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life – **

Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – ****

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. – *** – It’s safe, and that’s not what Kendrick should be.

The Lulls in Traffic – Rabbit in the Snare – **

John Mayer – The Search for Everything – **

James Vincent McMorrow – True Care – ***

Methyl Ethel – Everything is Forgotten – ***

M.I.L.K. – A Memory of a Memory of a Photograph – ***

PJ Morton – Gumbo – ***

Phoenix – Ti Amo – *** – So fun, like always.

Real Estate – In Mind – **

Sampha – Process – ***

The Shins – Heartworms – ***

Slowdive – Slowdive – ****

SOHN – Rennen – **** – What a voice.

Sufjan Stevens et al – Planetarium – *** – This is actually, really an opera.

Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Pt I – ***

Sylvan Esso – What Now – ****

The XX – I See You – **** – Their best record, and one that finally soars.

Best Music of 2016

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on December 18, 2016

[Critically, there’s some important things to clear our before getting to this: I don’t see the point in this, ranking music, anymore, as I don’t much see in anything since the 8th of November. There are much more pressing and dire needs that demand our attention, but yet, we continue to derive meaning as we can in a world that increasingly drains hope. The little hope that exists to overcome also persists the belief that I am myself unable or unneeded to embark change, that the greater and more able world at large will work out the good from the bad; when I no longer feel that is possible, I will instead be out there working to make change. Until then, I haven’t been and probably won’t ever able to articulate exactly what I feel about these times. The fun has been drained from things I before enjoyed, and that’s depression isn’t it. C’est la vie.]

Best Music of 2016

You will notice a theme emerges among the selections, a theme not of my own doing. The songs and albums present here represent a world-wide collection of artists and people and humans and beliefs, and many if not most have reached the same conclusion: things are bad and getting worse. The music listed here is a lot bit dark, damaging, and hard to listen to for the weak of heart. It’s soul and pattern is rooted in just not being able to find positivity in the current climate, and I hope more people will begin to see that the art reflects the times. This isn’t Britney Spears’s 1996 anymore. This is Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” and Common’s “Black America Again” and Blood Orange’s “Freetown Sound” and the return of A Tribe Called Quest to say something important. I hope everyone starts listening.

Albums

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar

Honorable mention pick because I myself don’t listen to this as much as possible, though I wouldn’t ask that of anyone – this is a dying man’s pitch for relief, and by its power and circumstance deserves ever credit it is given.

  1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Opinions are divided heavily on Bon Iver’s third album, a strange amalgamation of dreams and nightmares filtered through vocoders and auto-tone. Underneath, however, is the same endearing Bon Iver that has always remained more in tune with the human spirit than many others, and yet here it is given Justin Vernon’s full voice and dynamic. I think this record is more clear and concise than his previous.

  1. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

This album was a white light in a year of dreariness, and was the perfect soundtrack to a summer spent in requiem. It remains my place to go when I need hopeful distraction. A true return to power ballads and pop rock for the ageless.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – We’ve Got It From Here, Thank U 4 Ur Service

There’s not a song that made my overall list, but that’s not the import of this album – it’s the first in a long line of what I hope is the anthem call for the times: of protest, of the black people, and of fuck this shit. Hip Hop will rule the future again if we hope for a better millennium.

  1. Solange – A Seat at the Table – Cover Art of the Year

See above; though in Solange’s defense, this is the R&B equivalent. The title says it all, which is more good than her sister has ever done for anything. Let’s make more music that demands protest.

  1. DIIV – Is The Is Are

I can’t ever get over just how in touch this record is with a seriously hard-to-pin feeling for our generation: one of onchalance and lack of direction amid chaos. There’s not much use in trying to understand what he’s saying, but the music drives and bloats until reaching a denouement that announces dark defeat, as we all may feel.

  1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

This is a Frank Ocean self-portrait, without his strongest tracks, but with his greatest vision. It’s the album he’s always wanted to make, and of course that means it’s top notch.

  1. Bloc Party – Hymns

This album is nowhere else found in anyone’s Best Of lists, and maybe that’s okay. The album is summed up well when Kele sings “See I don’t know what the future holds / but I hope we see it together / ‘cause rock and roll has got so old.” This is Bloc Party’s first truly sincere effort to speak from their heart, with its slow drag, empty melodies, and dark tones of growing old in a world that just doesn’t get it.

  1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Every other Best Of list has this album somewhere at 20, which is fine, because no one seems to be able to deny how great it is. But I feel there’s a point everyone has reached where they get tired of repeatedly saying “Radiohead put out the best record of the year” which they seemingly do, and have done here again. A Moon Shaped Pool is their magnum opus, as they’ve found a way to continue to surprise us not by drifting further from the center but instead by writing from the core. The simple acoustic melodies, stripped down production, and earthy tomes are derivative of Thom Yorke’s divorce, but have more to do with coming to peace than continuing to fight. As he cries in “Daydreaming” that the dreamers never learn, but the band is “just happy to serve you.” Their just trying to reconcile that art isn’t and hasn’t been enough, that no one has really ever listened to their pleas, and that life continues. From the best review of this record I read, Pool is a “middle-aged sigh of relief.” I’m right there with them.

  1. The 1975 – i like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

There are many ways to describe and even listen to this record that reaches 78 minutes full. But amid their scrawling pastiche from power pop to synth rock to disco to hip hop to jazz, The 1975 have created a truly magnanimous piece of work. It’s so rich with details and layers that I continue to discover ways to enjoy each song with every listen. I can easily pick out a few tracks for a quick listen, or take it in full without feeling drained. They’ve found a way to do every thing possible, and pulled it off gloriously.

  1. Jim James – Eternally Even

Another example of using others’ reviews, this album has been described as Jim James’s What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye) moment; that is, that James has reached a boiling point. His music cries for peace, understanding, and effort. Truly workable, physical effort from everyone. In the same way that Radiohead reconciles their place in a hopeless world, James speaks as clearly that he remains Eternally Even in a world where “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” and things get worse. And in a year without hope, and a year full of records expressing just that, Eternally Even is the king for only just a little bit of hope.

Songs

20. “Kiss It Better” – Rihanna

“Been waiting on that sunshine boy, I think I need that back.”

19. “Angela’s Eyes” – Guy Garvey

“Good book but you got no proof.”

18. “Girl Loves Me” – David Bowie

“Where the fuck did Monday go?”

17. “Waste of Breath” – DIIV

Spot on, listen to this shit: “It’s no good, it’s a waste of breath to tell the man in me that he’s got something better to do.”

16. “Dull Times/The Moon” – Band of Horses

“Listen close wherever you go, dull times let ’em seep into your bones.”

15. “If I Believe You” – The 1975

“I mean, if it was you that made me you probably shouldn’t have made me atheist.”

14. “White Ferrari” – Frank Ocean

“So I text to speak, lesser speeds / Texas speed, yes.”

13. “Landed On Mars” – Atlas Bound

“Got to the side on what I should focus on, I’m just a participant.”

12. “No Matter Where We Go” – Whitney

“We’ll make a livin’ darlin’, down the road.”

11. “Don’t Touch My Hair” – Solange

“Don’t touch my hair when it’s the feelings I wear.”

10. “Moving On” – Roosevelt

“Moving on so I just see this is on my own.”

9. “True Love Waits” – Radiohead

Line of our generation: “I’m not living, I’m just killing time.”

8. “Different Drugs” – Bloc Party

“It’s like we’re on different drugs.”

7. “Normal American Kids” – Wilco

For everyone who’s ever wondered why people try to fit in: “Remind myself long ago, ‘fore I could drive and ‘fore I could vote, all the time holding a grudge ‘fore I knew people could die just because.”

6.“715 – CR∑∑KS” – Bon Iver

“Turn around, you’re my A-team.”

5. “Best To You” – Blood Orange

“Part of me is faking, faking it all just for fun.”

4. “Somebody Else” – The 1975

“I’m looking through you while you’re looking through your phone and leaving with somebody else.”

3. “Present Tense” – Radiohead

“This dance, it’s like a weapon in self-defense against the present tense.”

2. “Here In Spirit” – Jim James

“If you don’t speak out, we can’t hear it.”

1. “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West

This is the greatest song of the millennium, by a wide and untouchable margin.

“I’m tryin’ to keep my faith.”

 

 

The lot from which I have collected and thus chosen:

The 1975 – i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Atlas Bound – Lullaby EP

Bad Suns – Disappear Here

Band of Horses – Why Are You OK

Bat for Lashes – The Bride

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals – Call It What It Is

Blink 182 – California

Bloc Party – Hymns

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Chairlift – Moth

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Common – Black America Again

David Bowie – Blackstar

Deftones – Gore

Dopelemon – Honey Bones

Dr. Dog – Psychedelic Swamp

Dr. Dog – Abandoned Mansion

Drake – Views

Dylan, Bob – Fallen Angels

Chairlift – The Moth

Deftones – Gore

DIIV – Is The Is Are

Drake – Views

Explosions In The Sky – The Wilderness

Gallant – Ology

Guy Garvey – Courting The Squall

Honne – Gone Are The Days [Shimokita Import]

Honne – Warm On A Cold Night

  1. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only

Jim James – Eternally Even

The Jezabels – Synthia

Kings of Leon – Walls

Lapsley – Long Way Home

Lily & Madeleine – Keep It Together

Little Green Cars – Ephemera

Local Natives – Sunlit Youth

M83 – Junk

Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are

Olsen, Angel – Woman

Peter, Bjorn, & John – Breakin’ Point

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Roosevelt – Roosevelt

Rüfüs – Bloom

Shura – Nothing’s Real

Solange – A Seat at the Table

St. Lucia – Matter

A Tribe Called Quest – …We’ve Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Ur Service

Travis – Everything at Once

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

White Lies – Friends

Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

Wilco – Schmilco

Wye Oak – Tween

Nico Yaryan – What a Tease

 

 

Looking Back On Bob Dylan

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Prose by johnsontoms on August 2, 2016

2016-06-22 13.25.28.jpg

If we just look at the man’s best work, we can easily ascribe him the traits of a Titan. Like legends, myths, and even gods, they transcend above the level of relation to become superhuman. These are the immediate significations of Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and surely are deserved.

But looking back at it all, if you can find the time to go through every one of the pieces of work, the artist is reduced to their human qualities. Bob Dylan, like Picasso or Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Newton or Einstein or Plato or Johnny Cash, is a human being; he experiences the same range of love, hate, bitterness, regret, happiness, success, and learning that should be welcome to any modern human being lucky enough to live a full life. It’s what they do with those emotions, spread out over time, that separates the legends from the men. But we are all surely men.

  1. Bringing It All Back Home – 1965
  2. Blood On The Tracks – 1975
  3. Blonde On Blonde – 1963
  4. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1966
  5. Modern Times – 2006
  6. The Basement Tapes – 1975
  7. Highway 61 Revisited – 1965
  8. Another Side of Bob Dylan – 1964
  9. John Wesley Harding – 1967
  10. Tempest – 2012

Bob Dylan’s greatest albums stand alone above the rest of the crowd. They are the works of genius that will live on forever, and for their greatness the remainder of his output will succeed in longevity as well. Ranging from the direct to the surreal, Dylan finds a way to syphon from life its truest and most mysterious meanings, leaving us with a direction that can be found in Guernica or the Mona Lisa or Newton’s Laws.

And like the best, his work is symbolic and derivative of his own life. Henry Miller wrote the best essays and novels I’ve ever read, because they are subtracted from his own life. And his most cherished, Creative Death, succeeds in discussing the merits of the greatest works of art: that those who create for us the finest pieces of beauty are utter disciples of the balance of life and death, together – “that life leads only to death cannot be avoided…” that “to seize all of life we must seize all of death.” This can be found by working with the experiences that are befallen to us as individuals.

2016-07-12 02.39.16.jpg

Bob Dylan took his life as an insignificant Midwesterner and established a prose for the whole of the country, and eventually the world. If he had a more succinct set of experiences, or a more stressful existence, his art might have been more pointed. And for it he was able to speak to the general mass, and tackle the significant issues at large. It wasn’t until he himself had struggles, those of being famous and in demand, that his music lingered into the abstract. But even still, his music progressed and changed and bettered itself – the mark of a genius is his ability to practice and improve. Nothing more.

  1. Oh Mercy – 1989
  2. Shadows In The Night – 2015
  3. Saved – 1980
  4. Infidels – 1983
  5. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – 1964
  6. Desire – 1976
  7. Self-Portrait – 1970
  8. Time Out of Mind – 1997
  9. Before The Flood – 1974
  10. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – 1973

He was never the greatest instrumentalist, and never mastered his guitar or his harmonica. But he knew that it wasn’t important, so long as he continued to say and be the person that could stand on higher ground, even if he was misunderstood. For all the mystery he presented, it was his confidence and assuredness that brought about our affection and zeal. Even as he struggled with his fame, he never struggled with his release, manifested through his music.

As his personal hardships increased relative to his fame, the music became the focus. But like those masters before him, he couldn’t forego his strongest subject – himself. Even as he moved onto Nashville Skyline and New Morning and into the gospel years, we saw Blood On The Tracks and Desire. The only thing he knew how to do and to do well, was speak from the heart.

Bike.jpg

His progression as a human being worked to expel the things he could devote his attention to, moving from the world while a hopeful and impassioned youth on into the personal issues of middle age and fatherhood. And even while the public demanded for works that spoke to them when it meant they needed a savior, we found out over the years that what we needed most, was music that described the things we all went through – heartbreak.

It could be heartbreak from love, or heartbreak from life, but the recognition that this life will not serve you your dreams, is the source for all our troubles. And so it is that “Simple Twist of Fate” can make most anyone with a heart cry. Again: life and death cannot be separated.

  1. Hard Rain – 1976
  2. New Morning – 1970
  3. Love and Theft – 2001
  4. Nashville Skyline – 1969
  5. MTV Unplugged – 1995
  6. Planet Waves – 1974
  7. Fallen Angels – 2016
  8. Together Through Life – 2009
  9. Bob Dylan – 1962
  10. Street Legal – 1978

For as much as he changed, I can say that one thing remained constant – he never really wrote a bad song. I’ve put together a full order of the albums, by my liking, and I can say with absolute assurance that anything above 30 is a great record and worth a listening. Those ranked 31-40 aren’t even horrible, but simply don’t measure up to this otherworldly standard.

Milton.jpg

You’ll notice that those albums at the bottom all came between 1970 and 2000, with none before or after those dates. Most even, from 1980 to 2000. It was the only period that Dylan didn’t write music for himself. Having come out of his divorce, losing his children, and losing the faith of his fanbase, he tried to write music that people could like. This, of course, was a complete contradiction to everything before, and proved to be his weakest material. Bob Dylan never did anything because people liked it. In fact, quite the opposite.

  1. Real Live – 1984
  2. Slow Train Coming – 1979
  3. Empire Burlesque – 1985
  4. Good As I Been To You – 1992
  5. World Gone Wrong – 1993
  6. Under The Red Sky – 1990
  7. Shot of Love – 1981
  8. Knocked Out Loaded – 1986
  9. Down In The Groove – 1988
  10. Dylan – 1973

In his late age, he resurrected like a phoenix because he tapped into death – there was nothing left for him, in old age, except his music. And somewhere, though I don’t know the circumstances, he set about to keep the ideas together. Most of those records from 1997 on are near the top of this list, and some within the top 10 and top 5. By then, his heart had been broken. And he knew that only life could exist because it would end on down the line.

That’s the lesson to take from a full retrospective of a man’s work. Like studying all the paintings of Rembrandt, it takes a full read on his life and his habits and the circumstances that the artist goes through. What you’ll see is that no one is any different than you and I.

But the greats – they find the time to be great. Bob Dylan used his time only in that way.

I am extremely glad that I spent this time studying and listening to a true inspiration. Where others failed before him to represent the entirety of life, Bob Dylan never failed to discuss life as whole – one of success and tragedy, both. There was never anything to hide with him. I can only hope that I might show the good and the bad. Anything more fantastic is false, but anything more negative isn’t hopeful enough.


Epilogue

There’s a lot to say about spending 40 days listening to a single record by a single artist, chronologically until complete. But I won’t spend all the time in discussion of the act, and simply relate a few things.

It’s at first exciting, then overwhelming, meddlesome, exhausting, and rewarding, in that order. I started out looking forward to what I would learn, before realizing how it would impact my habits every day, until I let my daily habits get in the way of my goal, before sticking to my guns and dealing with the trouble I’d awarded myself, only to become extremely pleased and thankful to myself for having done something creative, if not important.

Even more, I think I’ve learned more about myself than I could have Bob Dylan. That’s something I can recommend, if you can deal with the rest.

Day 40 – Fallen Angels – 2016

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

 

angels.jpg

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.

 

Day 39 – Shadows In The Night – 2015

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

 

shadows.jpg

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

tempest.jpg

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

 

together.jpg

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

times.jpg

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.