Monday, December 7, 2009

Bob Dylan Reviews #9


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #9, Nashville Skyline
Columbia Records, 1969

While closely expanding on the country and Americana themes explored on John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s decade closer, Nashville Skyline, took over a year to be unleashed on puzzled fans. At just over 25 minutes, Skyline manages to accomplish a lot despite its brevity, above all reinventing Dylan once again, most notably with his curious vocals transformation.

Those who write Skyline off as merely an experimental foray that gave listeners its sole pop hit, “Lay Lady Lay” are missing what is truly one of Dylan’s most beautiful departures.

Take the record’s opener, a rendition of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s tender ballad, “Girl From the North Country,” that in just three minutes pulls off a multitude of fairly radical makeovers to Dylan’s image.

For starters, “Girl From the North Country” is the first of many re-imaginings of Dylan’s back catalogue, a trend that he continues to carry on today during his touring. Here it is fleshed out on a proper studio record. He takes what many consider one of his untouchables and doesn’t improve on it but rather sheds a new light on an otherwise familiar song. Say what you will about modern day Dylan’s aptitude for singing, he certainly has a knack for surprising loyal listeners with transformative interpretations of his most cherished songs.

Above all major changes to Dylan’s musical persona, “Girl From the North Country” introduces the new voice, a surprisingly melodic croon that sounds like Dylan was channeling Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson, by way of Dylan’s signature nasal howl. In interviews Dylan said that the voice was brought on by his decision to stop smoking. While feasible its much more likely he made yet another deal with the man downstairs.

Dylan pairs his vocals beautifully with Johnny Cash’s virtuosic pipes first as an ABAB duet tradeoff, which culminates in moment where the two (unsynchronized, mind you) share the closing stanza. While critics of this album then, and now spoke of their collaborations never truly working, the moment, even if just for one song, carries the weight of two seemingly parallel universes colliding for the first time on record. The result is an opener that is puzzling while also completely mesmerizing.

The song’s lush production, with dueling guitars, muffled snare drum brush strokes and a subtle reverberation in the microphones puts all of the song’s focus on the duet of Cash and Dylan. On a first listen it would not be uncommon for the, “okay, what has Dylan done this time” head scratching to be completely swept away by the song’s unadulterated beauty.

In typical humorous Dylan fashion, the awe-inspiring “Girl From the North Country” is followed by “Nashville Skyline Rag,” which was not only Dylan’s only album instrumental cut to date but also the album’s most blatantly country track. Its twangy guitar picking, honky-tonk piano and rubber band walking bass, and Earl Scruggs’ 5-string banjo gives the song a playful quality that is reminiscent of Another Side of Bob Dylan’s one-two opening punch “All I Really Want to Do” and “Black Crow Blues.”

The up-tempo and whimsical tracks on the album, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” “To Be Alone With You,” “Peggy Day,” and “Country Pie,” could easily be written-off as throwaways, nothing more than noodling studio filler but really they are the results of Dylan making the kind of enjoyable music he was raised listening to.

“I Threw It All Away” is arguably Skyline’s most poetic offering.

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through ev'ry day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away.

It’s hard to say how much of Dylan’s true voice was present on Nashville Skyline, but the central message of a man who had it all but squandered it away is a common one and arguably one that could be seen as an eerie precursors to Dylan’s divorce and his masterful Blood on the Tracks album that resulted from his heartbreak.

“Lay Lady Lay” is a Dylan immortal. It’s prime fodder for anyone who knows Dylan through any number of compilation albums released. On these said career-snippet records, “Lay Lady Lay” stands out as a bizarre little departure (I’ve even heard of people believing it’s not Dylan singing but rather Cash, proving both their ignorance to both Dylan’s career but also Cash, whose voice is unmistakable for anyone who’s listened to the Man in Black.)

Still on Nashville Skyline “Lay Lady Lay” feels right at home. It’s a simple love song with lush steel pedal guitar notes, a dreamy vocal performance from Bob and even a fairly tender and welcomed cowbell rat-tat-tat. This paired with the album’s most underrated cut, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” form the basic narrative of the best and worst parts of love and/or infatuation.

Lyrics like,

All of those awful things that I have heard,

I don't want to believe them, all I want is your word.

So darlin', you better come through,

Tell me that it isn't true.

Don’t have to be adorned and they hardly carry the weight of Dylan’s past efforts but the feelings expressed here are universal and true.

Nashville Skyline closes with, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which remains one of Dylan’s truly great romantic songs, an ode to the longing of a passionate and brief love affair.

Is it really any wonder

The love that a stranger might receive.
You cast your spell and I went under,

I find it so difficult to leave.

The album opens with a rendition of a classic love ballad, re-imagined with an Americana musical frame of mind and closes with this straightforward love song. It’s fitting that “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” would later get its own drastic makeover during Dylan’s mid 70s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour. That version was a powerful regular that showcased Dylan’s new gypsy-blues sound (which, if this was not a genre before the tour, was imagined by Dylan). For suck a seemingly simple effort, Nashville Skyline says a lot about the evolution of an artist’s career and really the evolution of a song over time.

After the motorcycle accident and Dylan’s flee from the spotlight, Dylan’s music was clearly less about the poetry and more about furthering his exploration of the roots music that he grew up with. He was tired of being of the, “voice of his generation” label that was constantly being hurled at him. While you could argue that he was stuck with this and that there would never be a direction home for Dylan after all that he had accomplished in a truly prolific decade, it’s easy to understand Dylan’s frustrations with his place in the world. But rather than completely void himself from the public eye, Dylan turned his musical attention to what he loved from his upbringing.

Ask any great chef what they like to cook when they’re alone or with family and more often their reply is universal, food they grew up eating. The comforts of tapping into what is familiar is sometimes exactly what an artist of any kind needs to explore during the hard stages in one’s career. Not to completely milk the soul food comparisons, but Nashville Skyline is very much an exercise in restraint and the basics of music that sounds good that equates to the kind of comfort food that Dylan sings about on “Country Pie.”

I don't need much and that ain't no lie

Ain't runnin' any race

Give to me my country pie

I won't throw it up in anybody's face

Dylan’s contributed more during his unprecedented run in the 1960s than most artists even dream about achieving in their careers. He refused to be typecast. He was diligent about playing and writing the music that he wanted to deliver and he did this all in the face of a wide base of critics and fans all eager to see what would come next. What started Dylan’s second decade (the next album entry in this project) is controversial, puzzling, but also extremely fascinating because Dylan played the role of rogue genius.