There are numerous objections leveled at Bob Dylan, the most annoying being that his voice — nasal, whiny, now grizzled with age — does everything but actually sing; that he’s off-key, flat, and more conversational than acceptable as craft. As tired as this argument has become, it fails to grasp that music — more than any other art form, an emotional experience — rarely relies on technical conformity to fulfill its promise. One can marvel at an expertly trained voice, or a virtuoso that hits every mark, but at that level of unfathomable genius, one becomes a mere admirer rather than a committed fan. In many ways, it’s why someone like Woody Allen always assigns his most troubled characters a deep interest in classical music: of course it’s astounding and precise, but given its current status as the dying indulgence of a chosen few, only rarely does it change our views of ourselves or our world. A musical masterpiece, then, is often “bloodless” in our pop environment, and not about to foster a revolution.
And so we reach Dylan. His legendary status has long ago been booked into the official record, but as a latecomer to his camp, I’m a rare bird who believes since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, he’s never been better. Aging suits him; it’s shaped his unique pipes in such a way that we can hear the years wheezing out for what might be a last look around. He’s earned his scratchy delivery, and now that he’s so mythical as to be unreal, he can relax as an elder statesman of lyrical storytelling. For he is our greatest musical storyteller; a man who weaves together apparent nonsense, rants, appeals, and offbeat riffs into sublime manifestations of a man who’s seen it all so many times he can’t decide if he’s really seen a damn thing. In each of his last three efforts (including 2001’s Love and Theft, which hit stores on 9/11 of all things), he’s never directly commented on current events (though always, always obliquely), or the scoundrels in office, or anything approaching topicality, but he nonetheless manages to be the voice of the times, as if we look to his bizarre wisdom to get us through our troubles. He’s as concerned with con-men, dastardly dames, sad reflections, and death’s approach as he ever was, but there’s a new-found strength to his tales, as if reaching the brink has brought not great fear, but a bemused contentment. Of course we’re doomed, he says, but there’s still a lot to enjoy on the ride down.
Love, for one. Dylan’s convinced it’s our only real salvation, but there’s nothing sentimental about the realization. As inexplicable as it is — and impossible to quantify — it’s what truly drives us after all, even in the midst of world-shattering chaos. The world’s ending, baby, so why not spend those final moments with a good woman? But Dylan’s not above a potent slam now and again. As he says in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”: “Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains.” For as proud and self-assure as you’ll ever be, you’re always a single step from giving it all away for the pleasures of the flesh. And he knows how selfish love can be. “I want some real good woman to do just what I say,” he reveals in “Thunder on the Mountain”, followed a few lines later by, “I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams.” Not exactly the stuff of romance. Whether its Dylan or the particular Everyman of the song, his vision is limitless; his eyes are always scouring, shifting, and nervously glancing about for observations, ruminations, and confessions. At first glance, the words flow haphazardly as if they occurred to the vocalist at that very moment. But after truly imbibing the work, there’s more than mere method to this madness, there’s everything we’ve come to expect from the oral traditions that make us human. He heads in so many directions because he wants to get it all in before the final track is laid down. And once again, he succeeds brilliantly.
And after running through the entire disc several times, I adopted the expected attitude when faced with a Dylan release: listen closely, sure, but just let it glide over you. The music is hot, jazzy, informal, and friendly, and the lyrics so infectious that they provide a perfect compliment to what always seems to be a laid back jam session. You can see why Dylan hates recording; he’d rather be loose and free, taking his band along and closing down only when it no longer feels right. And the songs reflect that closeness to a degree rarely heard on so many overproduced albums. Dylan himself took the reigns on this one, and who better to just let it happen? These ten songs never waste a moment, nor do they give us more than we can handle. At least for these ears, I wanted even more refrains just to see what he’d try and rhyme next.
Each song justifies itself and nothing seems out of place (I especially like “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Spirit on the Water”), but nothing seems to touch “Workingman Blues #2”, which is among the best songs of his career. Sure, there’s the sense that Dylan’s fed up with globalization, dead-end employment, and desperation at the lowest ends of the scale, but it’s far from some preachy anthem that might be offered up by a lesser artist. Consider this passage:
Well, I’m sailin’ on back, ready for the long haul
Tossed by the winds and the seas
I’ll drag ’em all down to hell and I’ll stand ’em at the wall
I’ll sell ’em to their enemies
I’m tryin’ to feed my soul with thought
Gonna sleep off the rest of the day
Sometimes no one wants what we got
Sometimes you can’t give it away
That’s more than a childish screed bemoaning a specific regime; that’s utter futility, and more than that, the recognition that no one really cares about good intentions or nobility. Often it is who you are down to your marrow that’s rejected outright, and even if the anger is initially directed at others (who doesn’t blame a group or the world entire for plans gone awry?), it all comes back to you. If you can’t even “give it away”, who’s to say you have anything worth giving? As always, Dylan looks inward as much as outward, perhaps more so. And for every S.O.B. who grinds you down, there’s a pair of hands you know very well that help the process along. That’s the lament, after all, and we reach that point — and some reach it again and again — where we’re hit with the cold slap of irrelevance; we don’t fit in, have no place, and don’t know where to look, as if we ever did. When the world’s done with you, and your entire sense of identity is gone. Finished up without notice. The hard end of modern times.