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IT WAS A long and sad road from Desolation Row to nashville's skyline, but when a man is all but destroyed physically, emotionally and artistically you can't expect him to rebound in a few easy steps. Most of us lost touch with Bob Dylan about the time of John Wesley Harding, released just prior to a motorcycle accident that warped his whole development. Planet Waves came out a few months ago, and brought little cause for rejoicing. But Blood on The Tracks, his newest album, seems to be a symbol of Dylan's long-hoped-for recovery, like a medical sign that we can't help making too much of. It's not an unqualified success, but it gives us the excuse to go on hoping.
The most important cut is "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," an immediately catchy song used for the album's commercials that goes on for nine minutes, but feels like it could go on forever. The music behind it certainly could--it's fast and romps through the same rhythms again and again without going stale. Hearing the song for the first time is a tremendous rush--it's not only that it's good, but that it means that Dylan is writing good songs again.
"LILY" DOESN'T have the same kind of verbal or poetic content Dylan's earlier lyrical marathons did. It uses short words to tell a story of jealousy, revenge, robbery and murder in the Old West. But it only tells us so much; most of the "plot" is missing or only present obliquely. We never find out who the Jack of Hearts is, or what happens to him when it's all over. You feel the song could be twenty times as long: there's room for that much more detail. What Dylan has included is just a slice out of what's in his mind--the same kind of feeling you had about songs like "Memphis Blues Again" or "Desolation Row," that there must be dozens of other stanzas to them somewhere, that Dylan could have just gone on and on if he'd felt like it. "Lily" has the ambience of a whole world, a world Dylan knows all the secrets of; he won't tell us about them, apparently, but at least he's back on the job. Maybe he's right to hold back--too many words now would make Dylan sound like a Bruce Springsteen imitation: if he wrote things like "It's Alright Ma" now they might sound like self-parody. He learned about tight lipped objectivity from country music, and if he can pull out of its constricting sentimentality and oversimplification without giving up its lack of pretention, the detour from John Wesely Harding on will have been worth it. "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is just such an achievement and a promise, I hope, of a whole new kind of Dylan that we'll hear much more of in the future.
As usual, interest in Dylan's new music is subordinate to interest in his new lyrics and in his present state of mind. But it's good to have the familiar musical background back--the harmonica that moves in to replace the voice when the words are over, the organ mounting upwards, giving the song a solid feeling and making the long, wordy lines seem to rise and fall in a grand rhythm. Dylan's voice on Blood on The Tracks is somewhere between the hard rasp of his classic period and the mellower country tones he affected after John Wesley Harding. The new combination isn't entirely successful--the way he whines "I--yeh--dee--aht Wind" is annoying and he hasn't yet recaptured the superb compromise of John Wesley Harding where he found a country voice that could express his urbane lyrics.
Dylan, once again, though, can make us shiver in our clothes and wonder why a line of relatively bald poetry can affect us so much.
Say for me that I'm alright Though things get mighty slow... And I've never gotten used to it I've just learned to turn it off. Either I'm too sensitive Or else I'm getting soft...
IT'S HARD NOT TO read some self-criticism into that last pair of alternatives. Dylan's abandoned the super-sensitivity of the song-writer who has to turn everything into precise images and clusters of associations, but the "softness" of the pose that followed is likewise cloying. "If You See Her, Say Hello" and "Shelter From The Storm" are over simple: not quite sensitive enough and a little too soft. It's a delicate balance he wants to strike, but when Dylan achieves it, it seems worth all the trouble.
I suppose I should say something about the "new stoicism" Dylan is preaching in this album. If you look too hard at the words it's hard to deny the triteness of what Dylan is saying:
Life is sad Life is a bust All ya can do Is what you must. You do what you must And you do it well I'll do it for you Ah honey baby can't you tell.
The short lines remind you a little of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" but it's sad to see Dylan reduced to saying "Life is sad" and affecting a Marlboro-country tough-guy stance about it, offering the comfort of superior sexual performance to his "honey baby." Even "Tangled Up In Blue," the second-best song on the album, can only offer something that sounds like it comes off a poster:
She had to sell everything she owned And froze up inside. I became withdrawn... The only thing I knew to do was to Keep on keepin' on.
Then there's a flash of the old Dylan, lashing out against the cardboard people around him whom he refuses to recognize, whose lives he has to rearrange and give them all another name.
All the people we used to know They're illusions to me now. Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters' wives Don't know how it all got started Don't know what the do with their lives...
The question, then, is, are songs like this and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" songs whose lyrical and musical complexity recalls the "old" Dylan, throwbacks to the past, or part of a slow return to the land of the intellectually living? Dylan is unpredictable, of course, but I think we'll see more of the "old" Dylan, the Dylan who knows how to tell stories and to use words better than anyone else singing today.
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