Tuesday, September 12, 2006
DON'T SPEAK TOO SOON FOR THE WHEEL'S STILL IN SPIN
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
--Dylan, "Idiot Wind," 1975
It's all true, everything you've heard--Dylan, "Workingman's Blues #2," 2006
Five years ago yesterday Bob Dylan released Love and Theft, an album that has grown in stature in the intervening years. Two weeks ago today he released Modern Times, an estimable follow-up. There seems to be talk of these two albums, together with 1997's Time Out of Mind, creating a "trilogy." Where does this idea of trilogy come from? Is it LOTR spawned? Or by the two sets of "Star Wars trilogies"? And what does the idea have to do with Dylan?
Dylan's career is what Nietzsche calls "a continuous sign-chain"--the question is always: does this new record extend the chain or does it simply mark time? Arguably, no Dylan album completely stays in the same place as its predecessor. But it's pointless to talk of "trilogies." Was Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, a trilogy? Or was it BIABH, H 61 and Blonde on Blonde? How about Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks and Desire? Almost, not quite. And that's the point. It's much easier to see Love and Theft as a breakthrough and MT as the "follow up." One problem with posing TOoM as part of a trilogy is that it ignores the fact that that album is "a follow up" to Oh Mercy, as a second Daniel Lanois produced project -- a fact that did much to raise both Oh Mercy and TOoM above the other recordings that preceded them respectively (in fact most talk of "trilogy" seems to be based on Dylan's increasing sales, in which case it's a marketing or hype trilogy).
But the other reason I find "trilogy" talk facile is that, for me, there's still a centralized Dylanesque persona at work on TOoM, particularly on songs like "Not Dark Yet" and "Highlands." In fact both songs strongly attest to a need to "get beyond Bob Dylan" (whoever that is and whatever he's come to mean). L&T and MT are similar in the way they do just that; they are songs (MT even moreso than L&T) that are pastiches of cliché and borrowed phrases, of a range of musical styles (L&T moreso than MT) that re-create Dylan as a premiere purveyor of Americana. L&T reminded me of Self-Portrait in that regard, an album almost nobody likes to talk about but which showed Dylan trying to come to terms with the pop song, Tin Pan alley, and his contemporaries (Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot) and, most would say, failing miserably. But what he did was Dylanize his sources in a way that confused and irritated the rabid fans raised on his '65-'66 period. My sense, in hearing L&T, was that he finally was "bringing it all back home," creating a new incarnation of Dylan as nothing more than a loose affiliation of lyrical tag-ends and associations -- and, on the new album, stolen lines from blues greats and obscure 19th century poets (see Modern Times).
As Chronicles Vol. I relates, when Dylan was making Oh Mercy, Lanois expected songs of strong perspective and rich metaphor that had been associated with Dylan's name for eons. Dylan said "I don't write those kind of songs no more." But he clearly hadn't yet determined what kind of songs he does write. I think it was the "Bob Dylan [his first album] Revisited" albums in the early '90s that planted the seed whose yield is now being reaped in his two accomplished, classic, magisterial and amusingly mannered 21st century releases.
Trilogy? Well, if so, then why isn't the next one the "culmination" of the trilogy? Where do you draw the line? I wouldn't be annoyed by yet another "Jack Frost" offering of rambling reconstructions of a '30s mentality adjusted for our times (Modern Times is a '30s Chaplin film after all--and anyone who thinks Chaplin isn't relevant should watch "Little Tramp" Bob on the video for "Times Have Changed," included on the DVD with the CD), but if the career of Dylan has taught us anything, it's to expect something different than we expected. I don't think MT satisfies that criteria, but I'm not complaining. I like it better than the last album in some ways, primarily because I think it's the purer distillation of the sound that Jack Frost seems to be looking for, and it does resonate now for some reason (maybe the same reason I find myself unable to stop listening to Johnny Cash's American Recordings and find myself playing Springsteen's Seeger Sessions more than I would have expected to).
Tin Pan Alley -- that's where most of the songs are written nowadays. This song wasn't written there. This song was written ... down in the United States!---Bob Dylan, 1962