It’s as predictable as loss of life and taxes. Bob Dylan releases a brand new album and critics hyperventilate that it’s his greatest since his masterful 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks.” The latter was an acoustic tune cycle largely concerning the dissolution of a wedding (his marriage?), and it does certainly stand the take a look at of time as a marker for all that was to comply with. The one albums in Dylan’s complete catalog that vie with “Blood on the Tracks” for vital supremacy are his two mid-60’s classics, the back-to-back albums “Freeway 61 Revisited” (1965) and “Blonde on Blonde” (1966). It doesn’t get any higher than that, by Dylan or anybody, with the doable exception of the Beatles’ “Revolver” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Membership Band.” (Focus on.)
So if “Blood on the Tracks” nonetheless stands as Dylan’s biggest album since 1975, then which subsequent assortment of latest songs – not counting dwell albums, compilations, collections of archival materials, and albums that includes different individuals’s songs (one Christmas album, two people tune collections, and three dedicated to pre-rock pop requirements) – really deserves reward as “the very best Dylan album since ‘Blood on the Tracks’?”
Once I was first requested this query, a couple of albums got here immediately to thoughts. The 2 information Dylan made with Daniel Lanois within the producer’s chair – 1989’s “Oh Mercy” and 1997’s “Time Out of Thoughts” – have at all times been close to the highest of my listing. Each moody and evocative, boasting among the greatest songs of his profession, they prove in hindsight to be flawed by the very manufacturing touches I had at all times loved. At this time, listening with new ears, the producer’s heavy hand with the soundscapes and results positioned behind “Oh Mercy” numbers comparable to “Man within the Lengthy Black Coast” and “Many of the Time” make the album sound extra like a Daniel Lanois album than one by Bob Dylan. Likewise, the Grammy Award-winning late-career 1997 comeback, “Time Out of Thoughts” – boasting compelling meditations on mortality together with “Not Darkish But” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” – is undermined by Lanois’s all-too-literal determination to make Dylan sound like he had already died and is singing from inside his tomb.
Having disposed of these two, I went again and listened to each studio album Dylan has launched since “Blood on the Tracks” – 17 albums in all, from 1976’s “Need” by final month’s “Tough and Rowdy Methods.” It was not an disagreeable technique to spend a couple of days, and nearly each album I listened to – except real clunkers like his mid-to-late 1980s efforts, “Knocked Out and Loaded” and “Down within the Groove” – made its case for itself.
“I’ve bought epic songs like ‘Altering of the Guards’ and mystically inclined tunes like ‘Senor’,” mentioned “Road Authorized.”
“I’ve bought passionate performances, nice horn preparations, and Jesus on my facet – to say nothing of producer Jerry Wexler,” mentioned “Gradual Prepare Coming.”
“Shot of Love” boasted about its funky title monitor and the moment basic, “Each Grain of Sand,” whereas “Infidels” bragged about enigmatic songs like “Jokerman” and “I and I” and candy guitar licks by Mark Knopfler. (“Sure,” I replied, “however you omitted two of your all-time basic songs, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Foot of Satisfaction,’ from the ultimate launch. What have been you considering?”)
The string of post-“Time Out of Thoughts” recordings all made sturdy circumstances for themselves, too. “‘Love and Theft’,” “Trendy Instances,” and “Collectively By means of Life” discovered Dylan trying to find that elusive mix of roots-rock, pop, swing, blues, and nation that might come to outline his late-career sound. “Tempest” from 2012 has the funky rocker “Pay in Blood.” Even 1985’s tacky “Empire Burlesque” known as out, “Hey, I’ve bought ‘Darkish Eyes’,” a terrific acoustic guitar tune that was tacked onto the tip of what in any other case was one thing of a sonic travesty. A phrase from “Fool Wind” greatest describes the outcomes of my sonic expedition: “Now every part’s a little bit the other way up … What’s good is dangerous, what’s dangerous is sweet.”
By means of all of the highs and all of the lows and thru re-listening to “Blood on the Tracks” to listen to what made it so nice within the first place, a considerably modest contender emerged. A lot to my shock, the very best album Dylan has made since “Blood on the Tracks” was his 1976 follow-up album, “Need.” Apart from its deadly flaw that retains it from equaling or surpassing “Blood on the Tracks” – by that I imply the tune “Joey,” a protracted, leaden ode to New York Metropolis mobster Joey Gallo that just about sinks the entire ship in footwear of cement – the album is wealthy with a few of Dylan’s greatest songwriting and performances and an total aesthetic that rings true and genuine in a method that the Lanois albums and “Empire Burlesque” by no means have been.
Plus, it has liner notes by Allen Ginsberg and harmonies by Emmylou Harris.
The album opens dramatically. The very first thing you hear on “Hurricane” – concerning the false conviction and imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — is an acoustic guitar being performed tentatively, as if somebody is simply testing out the instrument. Two measures in, a bass plucks a few notes. Two measures after that, drums kick in and pull the tune out of the driveway, adopted rapidly by the looks of a violin behind the wheel, introducing a melodic determine that may quickly duet with Dylan’s pressing vocals. In cinematic storyteller mode – many of the tune is written within the type of a screenplay — Dylan drops the listener proper into the opening scene, replete with stage instructions: “Pistol photographs ring out within the barroom night time / Enter Patty Valentine from the higher corridor / She sees a bartender in a pool of blood / Cries out ‘My god, they’ve killed all of them.’”
Listening at present, nevertheless, the traces from “Hurricane” that almost all resonate from past area and time are these:
“[Rubin] had no thought what kinda shit was about to go down/When a cop pulled him over to the facet of the street/
Identical to the time earlier than and the time earlier than that/In Paterson that’s simply the best way issues go/If you happen to’re Black you may as effectively not present up on the road/‘Much less you wanna draw the warmth.
Bear in mind, Bob Dylan wrote these traces 45 years in the past.
“Need” was recorded in just some periods that befell in summer time and fall 1975 and was launched on January 5, 1976 – the primary week of America’s bicentennial celebration. It was no coincidence. “Hurricane,” the album “Need,” and the contemporaneous tour – the famed Rolling Thunder Revue – in no small method marked Dylan’s return to social activism. His earlier albums from the 1970s – “New Morning,” “Planet Waves,” and “Blood on the Tracks” – discovered the so-called Voice of a Technology turning inward, musing on the thrill of affection and household life, exploring spirituality, and cataloging the ache and anguish that follows within the wake of a damaged relationship.
Whereas Dylan had not turned completely solipsistic – “Fool Wind” on “Blood on the Tracks” was a pointed indictment of American hypocrisy (“Fool wind, blowing like a circle round my cranium / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”) and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” on that very same album, explored political corruption, presumably in reference to the Watergate scandal – Dylan hadn’t written an overtly topical protest tune because the early 1960s, except the obscure, 1971 non-album monitor, “George Jackson,” concerning the homicide of the eponymous Black Panther chief by jail guards at Soledad Jail in Northern California. Those that didn’t perceive that — as Dylan himself as soon as mentioned —each tune of his is ultimately a “protest tune” lastly had their appetites for Dylan’s political engagement sated, at the least briefly. (Dylan additionally carried out two enormous profit concert events for Carter’s authorized protection fund, at Madison Sq. Backyard in New York Metropolis and the Houston Astrodome. After repeated retrials, Carter was finally freed.)
After the album explodes with its torrential “Hurricane” opener, the quirky story-song “Isis” resets the desk. One other function for violinist Scarlet Rivera, duetting with Dylan’s personal harmonica, the tune begins with a marriage scene and descends right into a comic-horror travelogue of loss of life and despair earlier than circling again round to the narrator’s wedding ceremony day, nearly in “Groundhog Day” style.
“Mozambique” follows, a type of antidote to “Isis” that describes an uncomplicated romantic idyll in a faraway land. Seemingly with out irony, the tune may effectively have been adopted because the theme for Mozambique’s state journey bureau.
Then the temper shifts to the darkish, mournful strains of “One Extra Cup of Espresso (Valley Under),” a tune of troubled love, accompanied by haunting, klezmer-like fiddle passages by Rivera and Dylan at his most cantorial, assuredly incorporating the krekhts, kneytshn, and tshoks of the Previous World khazn. Or as Ginsberg wrote in his liner notes, proving himself to be an astute musicologist: “Voice lifts in Hebraic cantillation by no means heard earlier than in U.S. tune. historic blood singing – a brand new age, a brand new Dylan once more redeemed ‘ cantillating like synagogue cantor.
“Oh, Sister” continues in the identical musical and lyrical vein, hinting at “forbidden love” that will likely be made manifest within the album’s penultimate tune, “Black Diamond Bay.” The tune “Romance in Durango” connects the album’s Gypsy sounds to these of Mexico, in one other deliriously troubled story of journey, tribalism and doomed love, usually assumed to have been impressed by the filming a couple of years earlier of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Child” (filmed on location in Durango, Mexico), through which Dylan starred as a personality known as Alias. “Romance” crossfades immediately into “Black Diamond Bay,” maybe the album’s most totally realized tragic journey romance, replete with a world forged of characters, a suicide try, a blackout, a loser playing, a violent rainstorm (a hurricane in a nod to the album opener?), a volcano, a hearth, and a shock ending worthy of O. Henry.
The album fittingly and gorgeously concludes with the still-shocking-to-this day, intimate quantity, “Sara,” to whom the singer pleads, “Don’t ever depart me, don’t ever go.” Whereas followers have learn autobiography in Dylan songs from nearly day one, right here was the primary and solely time that Dylan didn’t even fake to not be writing about himself. The tune title itself is the primary giveaway, as Sara was the identify of Dylan’s spouse on the time, the mom of his first 5 kids. And if information and gossip stories had not already indicated that Bob and Sara’s marriage was in hassle, “Blood on the Tracks” all however cataloged it – their son, Jakob Dylan, of Wallflowers fame, as soon as mentioned listening to that album is like eavesdropping on a dialog between his dad and mom. However “Sara” breaks the fourth wall (regardless of Jacques Levy), each in the usage of the identify of his real-life spouse and within the reference to considered one of Dylan’s personal songs from the mid-Sixties, when he sings the road, “Stayin’ up for days within the Chelsea Resort writin’ ‘Unhappy-Eyed Woman of the Lowlands’ for you.” Dylan had by no means written something like that earlier than and he by no means would once more. And so far as Sara in tune went, the “candy virgin angel, candy love of my life” would get replaced two years later by a “Miss X” about whom the singer “by no means know[s] what the poor woman’s gonna do to me subsequent,” in “New Pony” on the worthy album “Road Authorized.”
“Need” does have one drawback or footnote, nevertheless. All of the songs on the album aside from “Sara” and “One Extra Cup of Espresso” are co-credited to Dylan and theater director and psychologist Jacques Levy. What’s one to do with that info? Are these genuinely Bob Dylan songs or ought to they fall right into a separate class of Dylan co-writes (which would come with the 2009 album, “Collectively By means of Life,” most of whose songs are co-credited to Dylan and Grateful Useless lyricist Robert Hunter)? Dylan as soon as informed an interviewer that Levy was primarily liable for the lyrics to “Joey,” which might go a good distance towards explaining or excusing that quantity. The remainder sound sufficient like Dylan songs that I’d take into account them a part of his core opus, and if Levy offered some technical help right here and there, so what.
Total, “Need” is among the most coherent, well-rounded, unified and organic-sounding albums of Dylan’s profession. Little or nothing comes between singer and listener, and over time it has confirmed to be considered one of Dylan’s hottest, vital, and industrial successes.
“Need” is not any “Blood on the Tracks,” however it’s, actually and figuratively, the subsequent neatest thing.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor on the Ahead, and the creator of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).