- “If You Ever Go To Houston”, Together Through Life
- “You Win Again”, The Basement Tapes
- “Pressing On”, Saved
- “Shendandoah”, Down In The Groove
- “Like A Rolling Stone”, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
- “Three Angels”, New Morning
- “Bound To Lose, Bound To Win”, The Whitmark Demos
- “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”, Concert At Philharmonic Hall
“If You Ever Go To Houston” is a road trip song – perhaps, considering the music, a travelling circus song. It’s another example of the difference between Dylan and Courtney Barnett, because Dylan’s descriptions of the various towns he’s wandered through describe not their physical details, but the attitude you have to have when walking around them. It’s charming to me that the easy-going tone of the music contrasts with the edgy and often violent lyrics; this is Dylan dressing up as a wandering gunslinger. I’m also charmed by how Dylan never manages to stick to the conceit of these things; technically speaking, the verse starting with “I got a restless fever…” ought to be a bridge to properly ‘fit’ with the rest of the song, and “Mr policeman…” doesn’t fit at all. I suspect if The Beatles had written this song, they would have had a much tighter pop song; I’ve come to accept and even love Dylan for his wandering mind. “You Win Again” benefits from the half-assed operatic tone of The Basement Tapes. I said before that “2 Dollars And 99 Cents” had a ‘passively not giving a fuck’ tone, and that tone is washed over a heart broken by betrayal. He’s too tired to be anything more than resigned to his situation.
“Pressing On” is a strong contrast with “Every Grain Of Sand”. That song projected Dylan’s love of God outward, while this song tries to drag me inward to experience it. This is the kind of art that’s intoxicating when you share the emotion being drawn on and cringe-inducing when you don’t; it’s like an episode of Touched By An Angel if Roma Downey had a voice like a chicken that smoked a pack a day. I read that Dylan complained during his gospel phase that when he was singing in the Sixties, they called him a preacher, and when he finally had a message to preach, people got angry at him; it seems a universal experience amongst artists of all stripes and levels of success that people most appreciate your work when it’s delivered off-the-cuff. It’s why I’ve become so enamored with “invent nothing, deny nothing” as an artistic principle, because it gives the artist enough confidence to allow fundamental truths to come to the surface instead of conveying things they don’t fully believe in. Dylan’s gospel phase is frustrating because it feels like he’s got the typical born-again-anything problem of not having complete confidence in what he believes and he’s trying to get me to back him up.
“Shenandoah” is extremely my shit, a take on traditional folk songs updated for the present day (of, um, 1988). I’m actually a little surprised to find it’s a traditional song, because something about its vibe makes it sound as if it was written in the modern day; I know Dylan updated the lyrics, and he made them neater and cleaner and sharper. The music follows that, following a clear arc where each element pushes us to the next step; I love the epic buildup of “Look away, you rolling river” and the subtle way it cools down again. I was excited to get to the “Royal Albert Hall” version of “Like A Rolling Stone”, and it didn’t disappoint; it’s already a pretty surly song, and combining it with the “RAH” sensibility of actively not giving a fuck turns it into pure fuck-off rage. It’s a point of comparison with “Pressing On”; I may not feel God’s love, but I’ve certainly wanted people to fuck off, and it’s fun to draw on that energy.
At this point, I didn’t think I could be surprised, and yet here we are: “Three Angels” is a spoken word song, and even stranger a spoken word Christmas carol. It’s another reason people shouldn’t have been all that surprised by him believing in God, because this is a song that’s clearly him despairing over people not hearing God’s voice. On the flipside, in researching this song, I was amused by people being pleased that this whole album had Dylan return to his nasal singing voice; it’s funny how if you commit to doing something strange and off-putting, the collective’s reaction will shift from annoyance to resignation to intrigue to acceptance to love. It’s funny to me, actually, that the only thing that really carries across all of Dylan’s various phases has been his harmonica, as if his whole career has been finding different music to put under it. It also makes me think of how Dylan has defied being a Professional.
Like I said in my first Dylan article, Paul McCartney has been delivering a setlist of standards in his tours and delivering them in the exact same way and with the exact same level of energy every time. An artist aspiring to Professional status by definition won’t completely surprise you, the same way a plumber isn’t going to blow your mind with the things your kitchen sink’s pipes can do. There’s an extent to which any artist hoping to make a living at it must come to terms with what they’re going to do over and over in order to pay the bills, like an actor who willingly gets typecast so they can keep getting work. Dylan stands as a counterpoint, an artist lucky enough to have enough success to carry him through various phases and brave enough to endure the public shaming that comes with going there.
The Whitmark Demos are interesting, then, because they point to a universe where Dylan’s career was very different. Dylan’s music has been widely covered, which is of great comfort to people who like his words but can’t stand his voice; these songs were recorded with the intent of selling them to other artists, which would have shifted an informal conceit to the basis of his career had he not found success as a performing artist. “Bound To Lose, Bound To Win” is fun specifically because it was a fragment, and he says on the recording he can’t remember the verses. It’s strange how this simultaneously decreases and increases his mystique; on the one hand, we’re listening to him stumble through a half-forgotten song that he’s doing for some money, bringing him down to earth with the rest of us. On the other, even this fragment is great, with the implication of further greatness offscreen.
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” is a really fun pop song. The thing I like about the time in his career inbetween the protest songs and the shift to rock is that it felt like he was churning out a lot of songs breaking down very specific moments in life and attacking them from all different angles; if “Desolation Row” pulls back and looks at America as a whole, songs like “Mr Tambourine Man” looks at a single action (weirdly enough, it reminds me of how Seinfeld breaks down specific, weird human behaviours and rules). In this case, Dylan is complaining about a woman ghosting him, trying to work out her reasoning and how he can fix the situation. I appreciate simplicity for its own sake, and in this case I like how Dylan’s particular variety of intelligence is being used to solve a very common, simple problem; there’s something about using the word ‘evidently’ in a pop song that tickles me.
I want to theme my next Dylan article around ownage, and I want to crowdsource his songs about ownage from youse guys. I’m starting with “Masters Of War”, and I just need ten more.