Music for the Night of and the Morning After
Bob Dylan and Suzanne Vega
“Summer days and summer nights are gone / I know a place where there’s still something going on.” Listening to the new Bob Dylan album after being subject to barrages of hip, carefully-controversial rap, or slick discs on which the artist has about as much to do with the sound as the cover photographer is a bit like walking from a high-powered cocktail reception into a raucous Irish pub. Suddenly the place is full of smoke, foot stamping music and competing voices in various states of unpredictability, love proclamations and self-declamation. Flipping to Suzanne Vega’s latest release puts you at the bar at four in the morning, with the floor being mopped sitting opposite the woman who you’ve been trying to pick up all night, looking at you with uncanny perception and humor, and a glint that says just maybe she’ll let you walk her home.
Dylan sounds like he has only a few shreds of vocal chordage left in him, but where his last album, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, sounded like the deathbed confession of a man who had seen (and sung) too much, this year’s Love and Theft finds the unrepentant Dylan leaping Beetle Juice-like out of his grave and back onto the road. Hands up those who thought he was already dead…
Which makes the rollicking ambush on the pell-mell opening track, “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee,” a tale at once foreboding (“Two big bags of dead man’s bones”) and sublimely ridiculous (“Said Tweedley Dee to Tweedly Dum, ‘Your presence is obnoxious to me’” ). Far from being dead, this sounds a lot like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-era Dylan, not least in the rambunctious and rock-steady band Dylan has assembled around him, including a guitarist who almost outdoes Robbie Robertson’s blistering licks from the good old days of the Hawks. Dylan has produced the album himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost, which gives the album a much more straight-up feel, in contrast to the wizardry of Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel). On Time, Lanois placed Dylan’s voice, sounding the oldest and possibly frailest it ever has, right at the front of the mix, creating a funereal atmospheric as the dying, or possibly dead, Dylan whispers hoarse confessions in your ear. And now he’s wickedly, impossibly back, just when you thought it was safe to consign him to the limbo of multi-album package re-releases. On “Summer Days,” he sings, “The girls all say you’re a worn out star.” This album is unlikely to return Dylan to iconic status, though it should.
Vega’s new album, Songs in Red and Gray, misses none of her strengths: Her quietly powerful voice, which avoids Alanis histrionics, remains understated but direct: “Soap and water / Wash the year from my life / Straighten all that we trampled and tore / Heal the cut we call husband and wife.” The music is subtly complex, often with the folky underpinnings of an acoustic guitar. Vega and longtime bassist Mike Visceglia shift easily from the breezily defiant “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May,” to the lithe, staccato “Solitaire.” Yet the punch is all in her lyrics, full of extended metaphors and vivid imagery that catch the listener off-guard like a pit-trap in the leafy beauty of her music. She has Michael Stipe’s talent for turning unmanageable turns of phrase into effortless cadences. There are few who could sing, “Look at all the waifs of Dickensian England / Why is it their suffering is more picturesque?” without it clunking in the ear like a trash-compactor, but the line slips past barely noticed in Vega’s sleight of voice. The genius of Vega lies in her ability to write songs that creep up on you slowly, insinuating themselves with their skillfully painted character sketches and wistful tales with an unexpected sting in their tail: “If I Were a Weapon” concludes, “Well, if I am that weapon / I am pointing now at you / So just put down the hostage and we’ll / Talk it down until we see this through.”
The first single off the album, “Widow’s Walk,” begins, “Consider me a widow boys and I will tell you why / It’s not the man but the marriage that was drowned.” Presumably because of lyrics like this, and her reluctance or inability to wail, Vega’s output has been classified as “mature” music, without question more of a curse than a blessing in this age of ever younger, nubile stars. Yet, as Dylan proves conclusively, “maturity”—or at least getting way older than most people are allowed to get and still play guitar in public—has a world of benefits all its own. Who else could sing “She said, ‘You can’t repeat the past / I said, ‘What do you mean you can’t, of course you can!” and sound like he really means it?
Come to that, I’m not sure anyone else could get away with singing, “I’m leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift / I’ll break the roof, set fire to the place as a parting gift.” Particularly not in the same song (“Summer Days”). But Dylan isn’t all bluster and arson: “I need something strong to distract my mind / I’m going to look at you ‘til my eyes go blind,” is one of the more beautiful lyrics anyone has written for a while, and his admission that “Your days are numbered / So are mine,” makes it all the more poignant. Both artists give the distinct impression that they stopped writing for anyone else’s enjoyment several years ago, and who are we to complain? As long as they are keeping themselves entertained with their music, odds are it will be interesting for those who choose to tag along.
Vega’s Leonard Cohen-influenced songwriting will not be to everyone’s taste, but the pleasures for those prepared to listen beyond the simple musical façade are full of intrigue. As for Dylan, there are many who will tout Love and Theft as a return to form, and so it is, but this cocky grandfather-figure who sings, “I’ll die before I get senile,” is also yet another facet of the ever-moving poet (whose Never Ending Tour has now lasted about 13 years). Dylan is no stranger to reinvention, the most famous instance being his first public embracing of rock and roll, when the audiences became so hostile at times that concerts would degenerate into a war of wills between Dylan and the audience (on the “Albert Hall” live recording, he can be heard instructing his band before “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Play fucking loud”). Yet if you squint your eyes slightly at the cover of Love and Theft, the curly-haired stick figure looks uncannily like the cocky scarecrow poet who appraised the world from the cover of Blonde on Blonde. He’s back.