Bob Dylan has gotten the canonization machine working in avalanche order these days, from the Scorsese documentary to the chart-topping Modern Times. The new album is surprisingly good – if not the second-coming so many are talking about – and yet it rubs against the grain in one particular sense. As it must in some sense, the singer’s recent publicity has emphasized his younger days and the centrality of his music to 1960s culture. Even his concert sets seem to ride this line nowadays. He is still pretty creative in pulling apart and remaking songs, but the choices pretty inevitably reflect such earlier albums as Highway 61 Revisited and Nashville Skyline. We cannot blame Dylan for doing all this. Most people happen to think that he pulled out a sucky decade or two with some crap albums (see his disjointed Chronicles on this point), and who would contest the years of greatness under his belt? The only problem with this is the funny idea that Bob Dylan simply stopped somewhere after Blood on the Tracks, only to start up again for Time Out of Mind or thereabouts for a last renaissance. Anyone can tell you the albums to buy for a casual interest, but the exact albums not worth your time are subject to debate.
Specifically, what most people seem to skip over are Dylan’s achievements is his time leading the two legs of his 1975-76 concert tour, the absolutely blistering Rolling Thunder Revue. He had already completed the “Hard Rain” tour, where he had reunited with the Band and hit the road for the first time following that famous period of seclusion. Yet this was a relatively stable showing, if new directions were being set in the subtly different arrangements given to old hits. Following the release of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, Dylan began something incredibly new and also good. Pulling in as many musician friends as he could fit on stage – from Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn to new faces like Mick Ronson and Scarlet Riviera, a violin player picked at random off the street – Dylan inaugurated what might have been his last unqualified period of creativity. The new concert series saw Dylan drastically transforming old hits (imagine “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as a driving rock set), earning critical acclaim once again, and giving a series of electrifying performances. Performing on stage in white-face makeup and western clothing, surrounded by a haphazard collection of talent that almost defies listing, and giving himself to the sheer raw vocal energy first charted out in Blood on the Tracks, the Bob Dylan of the 1970s is almost unrecognizable from the hip singer-songwriter of the 1960s so frequently brought to the public’s attention.
The live energy of the concerts is pretty legendary, and anyone can get a great feel for it from the Live 1975 set. The more important news is that Dylan headed into the recording studio mid-way through the tour. Here, he cut one of his last truly great studio albums and one that is, troublingly, almost unknown to the casual fan. 1976’s Desire sees Dylan singing duets with a then almost-unknown Emmylou Harris, writing his first “protest songs” in years, and opening up to a degree that would be seen as remarkable by his own standards if it was not for the previous year’s Blood on the Tracks.
Desire has a nearly-indescribable ragged, gypsy-camp feel to it, with wandering lyrics set to the diverse sounds of accordions and mandolins and a violin almost floating in the background. The lyrics, written in conjunction with playwright Jacques Levy, are perhaps more strongly narrative than anything Dylan otherwise wrote, telling stories as diverse as that of an outlaw escaping to Mexico or the events leading to the incarceration of Reuben “Hurricane” Carter. Almost without exception, Desire proves not only an incredible album but also one of the more unique works in Dylan’s catalogue.
The best-known hit, “Hurricane,” is perhaps the most danceable protest song you’ve ever heard. Here, the sheer indignity in Dylan’s snarl pushes against a driving rhythm section and lyrical solos from Riviera. Somehow, you will feel the urge to throw it on for a party before the guilt kicks in. The tensions hinted at in the song sound a recurring theme for the album, where lyrics are generally a slight bit incongruous to the music. “Mozambique” is one of these songs, where ostensibly ironic lyrics are coupled to perhaps the “happiest” music you’ll ever find. You can learn something from it as you push the speed limit on Route 1.
“One More Cup of Coffee” finds Dylan stretching his dramatic range and pulling his voice over these odd little crescendos of emotion – it is easy to find yourself moved by the rather silly story behind it. “Oh Sister” features a searing, moving duet with Emmylou Harris, the romantic seduction inseparable from its religious overtones. “Joey” proves the album’s one misstep, a self-indulgent and poorly-composed ode to a convict that leaves you wondering if “Hurricane” wasn’t enough by itself. Two more high points quickly follow, however, with the Spanish-inflected “Romance in Durango” and the manically comic, catchy, and enigmatic “Black Diamond Bay.” Rounding out the album’s finish is the lovely introspection of “Sara,” perhaps the most candidly biographical song Dylan ever realized. Written to his wife in the midst of their divorce, the song so tersely relates the back-story for “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” that it sounds as though it could have been recorded the morning after the earlier song. The whole album is wonderful with the exception of “Joey,”
Perhaps the best piece arrives early on in the album. “Isis” is, quite literally, epic. It may change your life. It’s beyond summary, but imagine a travelogue cutting from “the fifth day of May” to “the pyramids all embedded in ice” at night, a smile in “the drizzlin’ rain” to “the world’s biggest necklace” … alright, go back and read that again. Then superimpose a broken-down love affair. Then add a journey of self-discovery. And set it all down to a hard-driving harmonica fighting it out with a violin, and you might begin to have an idea of what this song is talking about. Finally, since it is only the second track, you can then follow it up with the ragged, epic type of album that only Dylan ever perfected, and that maybe even he only ever perfected at this one time in his career.