Sunday, December 14, 2014

They Don't Know How To Smile

Today’s formative-album replay: Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. I admired Dylan before I learned to love him; this stiff, transitional record can be blamed for that initial arm’s-length embrace. I don’t recall why but I soberly self-administered this folk medicine before falling hard for the wild mercury brilliance of the likes of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde, and I found its earnest sanctimony, and its unmistakably raw presence, mesmerizing and distancing in roughly equal parts. I’ve since come to hear all of Dylan’s records as provisional documents, snapshots of a restless creative force in motion rather than pristinely realized studio paintings, but this one may be his most makeshift-sounding of all: The record sounds like it starts literally in mid-strum with a dutiful rendition of the title song, and it ends with what was surely the one and only take of a wispy, tossed-off fuck-you, “Restless Farewell,” the last line of which is “I’ll bid farewell and not give a damn.”

Obviously, Dylan always gives a damn about something, but on this album--his third, and his first consisting of entirely original material--his attention seems to be offstage as he shuffles shakily and sourly through a series of lesser protest songs (“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “With God on Our Side”) and renders some more private-themed tunes with a folded-in-on-himself diffidence. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t manage a few flares of infernal intensity, as in the bottomlessly bleak “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” or that a kind of smiling detachment doesn’t perfectly suit a song like the wistful “Boots of Spanish Leather,” or that a bleary, circumspect tone isn’t just right for the sneakily powerful “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” And both the title song and “When the Ship Comes In” are clearly anthems he enjoys, distractedly or not. It’s hard not to notice, though, that both of these are apocalyptic, allegorical, not topical--a register that has always fit him best, with a few finely rendered exceptions (“Hattie Carroll,” “Hurricane,” etc.).

On this listen, I also happened to notice how frequently he gravitates to triple meters. Indeed, that iconic title song is a waltzing sea shanty if it’s anything--one that’s forecasting the storm that would overtake him and his whole generation, though in his case not for long. It would only be a year before Newport, two years before the motorcycle accident, three years and change till he would circle back from the rocky heights to make his most ageless and abiding folk record, John Wesley Harding. Last I checked, though the RPM may be slower, the wheel’s still in spin. Original Facebook post here.

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