Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 27 April 2015

11. New Morning (1970)

New Morning came hard on the heels of the critically (though not commercially) unpopular Self Portrait, and seemed to soothe the fevered brows of rock writers, eliciting responses such as "We've got Dylan back again!". As someone who liked S.P. just fine, I wasn't aware that he'd gone away, but was looking forward to listening to this next album all the same.

It starts well with If Not For You, which of course was later covered by George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.  In fact George himself played with Bob on an earlier take, but the solo version here was selected in favour of it.  This rather twitchy rendition has a nice mixture of organ, guitar and harmonica, but isn't a patch on the A.T.M.P. cover.  Still, it's a very sweet, simple love song and makes a great album opener. (Apparently there's also an Olivia Newton-John version, but I've yet to gear myself up for a listen.)

Not so sweet but equally good is the cynical Day Of The Locusts, where Dylan outlines his feelings about picking up his honorary doctorate at Princeton, where he was compelled to don a cap and gown.  This 'honour' must have been a rather conflicted experience for a college dropout with a mistrust of The Man, but weirder still was the emergence from the ground of thousands of cicadas after a 17-year hibernation period.  It's a soulful song, one I can easily imagine Van Morrison covering, and features some capable piano from Bob.  Most remarkable, which I only noticed when I first listened on headphones, are the cicada-mimicking sound effects that appear at the start and after each chorus.  I'm not sure what instrument was used to achieve this 'stridulation', but it's a nice touch.

The piano is the most prominent instrument on New Morning, and duties are split between Dylan and Al Kooper, whose organ-playing is also a key feature.  On the lovely The Man In Me, which begins with much la-la-la-ing, the organ trickles around Bob's piano and husky voice, while unobtrusive female backing vocals add some pleasant embellishment.  This Rod Stewart huskiness was due to a heavy cold, and appears elsewhere, including the jubilant title track, which also shares The Man In Me's tangible sense of optimism.

New Morning is one of three songs originally composed for a play by Archibald MacLeish called The Devil and Daniel Webster.  Another of these is my least favourite track, Time Passes Slowly, whose title accurately describes my feelings about sitting through it.  Dylan's voice sounds strained, which isn't a good match for the laid-back instrumentation.  He also sounds depressed, with lines like "Ain't no reason to go anywhere", "Time passes slowly when you're lost in a dream" and "We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right".  Not only is it in desperate need of a tune, it makes me think that perhaps the quiet, idyllic country lifestyle is beginning to pale, as even the happy odes to the simple life sound a bit forced.

Sign On The Window seems to document the change in his circumstances from footloose rock star to home-loving family man via the motorbike spill ("sure gonna be wet tonight on Main Street..., Hope that it don't sleet") and is moving in its own way, although that forced, even resigned feeling is there again in the last verse about building a cabin, raising a family and fishing for trout. There's a sense that this period of his life is heading towards a close and that something soon has to shift.  In terms of songwriting he's definitely out of ideas at the moment, as evidenced by the dullness that is Went To See The Gypsy (about meeting Elvis? Do I care?) and the pretty, featherweight waltz Winterlude (rhymed with "dude" - yikes).

More fun is If Dogs Run Free, where Bob flirts with jazz (thankfully it's Kooper on piano here), speaking his way through a nonsense lyric, accompanied by soft drum brushes and Maeretha Stewart's gentle, high-pitched scatting .  Nice.

(Last night I discovered that there's a children's illustrated book of the lyrics to If Dogs Run Free   which could make a nice gift for the child/grandchild of a Dylan fan!)

Also a lot of fun, and a welcome relief, is One More Weekend, whose sleazy electric guitar and blues rowdiness are a flashback to Blonde On Blonde with added Self Portrait backing vocals. My feeling is that a couple more songs like this one dotted through the album would have made it much more interesting, and perhaps put the more reflective ones in a better light.

The final two tracks are the most curious.  On the super-mellow Three Angels, Bob once again speaks rather than sings over hymn-like organ, tinkling guitar and mournful female backing vocals. A quick google of the title reveals that the "Three Angels' Messages" herald the second coming of Christ according to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  In the song, "The whole earth in progression" passes by, including a lady in a bright orange dress, the Tenth Avenue bus and a man with a badge, but no-one seems to notice the angels playing their horns.  On the other hand, the angels, who "stand high on their poles" "In this concrete world full of souls" could equally be referring to a shop's Christmas window display, which wouldn't surprise me at all!

Album closer Father Of Night also has a spiritual quality.  It's the remaining track from the abandoned The Devil and Daniel Webster agreement that fell through - in fact, this is the song that caused Dylan's disagreement with the producer.  Bob's simple, repetitive piano and ooh-ooh-oohs from the two backing vocalists are all that accompany the words of praise.  It's an odd one and a half minutes, but one of the album's high points.

To me, New Morning sounds like Dylan searching for something and not really finding it.  A variety of styles are approached, and although there's nothing wrong with the playing, this is a man in need of inspiration, something to stimulate his songwriting again.  There's a real lack of tunes, and he sounds bored and depressed.  The songs in isolation are quite good (with the exception of Time Passes Slowly), but the album when listened to as a whole is, well, boring. The fact that it was so well received on release (pushing Led Zep III off the top spot in the UK), then largely forgotten about, leads me to the conclusion that the rave reviews were more due to a sense of relief that it wasn't Self Portrait, than the actual quality of the material.

It's not an album I'd rush to listen to again, which makes me a bit sad, as this is first time I've felt this way during the BobBox experience.  Perhaps mixing some of the better tracks into a playlist would give them a longer life.  Anyway, I hope that the next album out of the Box is less of a disappointment.

What do you think of New Morning?  Love it?  Hate it?  Meh?  Let me know in the comments section below.

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  1. You haven't heard Olivia Newton John's "If Not For You"????

    Tsk! Young people today... ;-)

    (The above is not necessarily a recommendation - she might pose a bit of a risk to diabetics - but it's by no means the worst Dylan cover ever.)