Well, friends, Bob Dylan is back with us again. I don’t know how long he intends to stay, but I didn’t ask him. Didn’t figure it was any of my business.
Put simply, New Morning is a superb album. It is everything that every Dylan fan prayed for after Self Portrait. The portrait on the cover peers out boldly, just daring you to find fault with it, and I must admit that if there is a major fault on the album, I haven’t found it. Nor do I care to. This one comes easy, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? A newly re-discovered self-reliance is evident from the first measure to the last fadeout, the same kind of self-reliance that shocked the old-timers when this kid dared to say “Hey-hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song.” That may have been his own modest (as it turns out in retrospect, anyway) way of saying “Here I am, world.” Calling his latest outing New Morning may very well be his way of saying, “I’m back.”
But that’s reading things into it already, and I’d like to get through this review without reading much into what’s already there, because what’s there is very impressive indeed, and needs no help from the likes of me. Instead, let’s look at what is there, pausing now and again to comment on it.
To begin with, there’s the cover. Dylan, looking like he’s been through some rocky times, but confident. And the back cover, with Young Zimmerman and Victoria Spivey, self-appointed “Queen of the Blues,” standing by her piano. He’s holding a guitar that Big Joe Williams had just given him, and she is beaming up at him, immensely pleased. The look on his face seems to say, “I thought I could do it, and I could. Shit, man, I’m Bob Dylan, that’s who I am.” And indeed, that’s who he was. And is.
“If Not For You” starts it all off. A kind of invocation to the muse, if you will, only this time, instead of crying “I want you so bad,” he’s celebrating the fact that not only has he found her, but they know each other well, and get strength from each other, depend on each other. ‘Twas always thus, it seems, and the Kooperishly bouncy organ and brisk tempo go back a long ways.
Everyone seems to think that “Day of the Locusts” is about Dylan picking up his degree at Princeton, but it could as easily be any kid in this day and age, perplexed, uptight, and not a little unnerved by this juncture of his life, graduating from college. But putting all that aside, musically, this is where the whole thing gets off the ground. Dylan makes his first appearance here playing piano (piano cuts wisely ticked off on the cover, probably by Kooper who knows a great keyboard artist when he hears one, and who hears one in Dylan), and the entire production, from the locust organ discord to the subtly mixed-down vocal backup, is just fine. This cut sounds like a lot of work was put into it, which is a break from Dylan’s usual studio practice of doing a song about twice and leaving it at that.
After the hero of “Locusts” has run off to the Black Hills, he tells us that “Time Passes Slowly.” More superb pianistics here, although the erratic ending makes me think that this was done on the spot in the studio. No matter, it’s a nice piece of fluff, and it fits.
“Went to See the Gypsy” is what the side’s been building up to, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a masterpiece. The hardest rocker from Dylan in a ‘coon’s age, it builds beautifully, ending in some fantastic electric guitar work. Dylan’s voice is back in its raspy, rowdy glory; after a list of unusual achievements credited to the gypsy by his dancing girl, we hear Bob growl, “He did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here,” Really! I whooped the first time I heard that. For some unknown reason, the story line in this song reminds me of the scene in Juliet of the Spirits where Juliet and her friend go to see the androgynous Indian at the grand hotel. And the meaning, if indeed there is one, of the line about the “little Minnesota town” escapes me, but I don’t really care.
Side one ends on two comic notes. “Winterlude” is lewd, and makes me wish I’d learned to ice skate when I was still back East. The line about going to get married and then coming back and cooking up a meal reminds me of Bing Crosby crooning, “In the meadow we can build a snowman” in “White Christmas.” And “If Dogs Run Free” puts me in mind of a beatnik poetry reading at the Fat Black Pussy Cat Theatre in Greenwich Village. Everybody — and especially Maeretha Stewart — sounds like they’re having a good time, and Al Kooper can play in my piano bar any time he wants.
On the surface, the second side would seem to be the “serious” side of the record, but that notion is belied immediately by the fact that somebody’s guitar (Bob, is that you?) is horribly out of tune. But there is a lot of gusto to Dylan’s singing and, for a change, the backup girls add just the right touch.
The unquestioned masterpiece of the album is “Sign on the Window.” It ranks with the best work he’s done, and the fact that he plays such moving piano and sings with just everything he’s got makes it one of the most involved (and involving) pieces he’s ever recorded. It’s right up there with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” and the unreleased “I’m Not There” in intensity. “She and her boyfriend went to California.” And baby, that’s a long, long way. It’s gonna be wet tonight on Main Street, and with that pronouncement, Dylan communicates a despair mixed with resignment. And is the cabin in Utah the panacea that it would seem, the glue to mend this broken heart? I’m not convinced, and Dylan doesn’t sound like he is either. If poetry can be a story that must be sent by telegraph, then this is certainly one of Dylan’s foremost achievements as a poet. Words, music, singing, piano work, all of the highest order. Yes, Doubting Thomas, he can still do it. And how!
And if there is any doubt left try on “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat Volume Two,” otherwise known as “One More Weekend.” It’s such a good rocker, and so full of energy that I still haven’t bothered to listen to the words. No matter, they surely say what they must, which, in the grand old rock lyric tradition, is not much.
Speaking of lyrics, who among us would have thought that we’d see the day when Bob Dylan would start out a song with “La la la la la …?” I’ve never heard Dylan sounding so outrageously happy before. The tune to the verse is similar to “I Shall Be Released,” but the sentiments here show that the release has already happened. I just love this number, and I hope that the likes of Joe Cocker will think twice before attempting a cover version of it.
The second side ends with two “religious” songs that will doubtless be plumbed for “meanings” they don’t contain. “Three Angels” is an old-fashioned Dylan word-riff, the kind of thing that we’ve seen before in “Gates of Eden” and “Desolation Row.” It is so corny that it is funny, and this is the one cut on the album that makes me wonder if it’ll stand up under repeated playings. And regardless of what others say about “Father of Night,” I think that Dylan found a good gospel riff on the piano and used it. Anybody can make up words to it; they simply aren’t that important. I guess it could also be seen as the leavetaking of the muse too, but I’ll leave it to others far more erudite than myself to figure that out. Praising the maker of the night is an awfully good way to end a New Morning, anyway.
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In the end, this is an album that, the less said about it, the better. I have my favorite moments (like the part in “Sign On the Window” where he modulates up and then, when he says “Looks like it’s gonna rain”, he hits a major chord — right out of the blue), but so will you. It seems almost superfluous to say that this is one of the best albums of the year, one of Dylan’s best albums, perhaps his best. In good conscience, all I can really say is get it yourself and prepare to boogie.
After all, what better recommendation for an album — be it Dylan or a bunch of unknowns — is there?