Sunday, August 8, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1495: Bob Dylan

With the completion of this next review, I’ve only got two Bob Dylan albums in my collection that remain to be rolled. What two are they, you eagerly inquire? Just calm down and take this one album at a time, just like I do.

Disc 1495 is…. Desire

Artist: Bob Dylan

Year of Release: 1976

What’s up with the Cover? Bob out for a stroll in the woods. Bob is rocking his fur collared coat, an improperly applied necktie and the hideously ugly hippy that was his constant companion back in this era. Presumably no one was brave enough to tell Bob that it makes him look like an old western prospector.

How I Came To Know It: I have had this for a long time and goes back to a time many years ago where I was fleshing out my Bob Dylan collection.

How It Stacks Up: I have 19 Bob Dylan albums and unsurprisingly, many are of the excellent variety. This is true of “Desire” but it can still only land at #12, beaten out by the narrowest of margins by “Time Out of Mind”.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Desire” is another great Bob Dylan record, released at the height of his ability, although that’s hardly descriptive, since Dylan was a good 15 years into his brilliant career by this time. Dylan’s storytelling talent is on full display throughout the record, along with a penchant for making those stories very long. If you are a DJ in need of a bathroom break, “Desire” is a good place to find the song for the occasion.

Given that the length of many of these songs were not radio friendly (bathroom breaks notwithstanding) it isn’t surprising that the singles didn’t do as well as many of Dylan’s previous records. However, if there was a ‘hit’ it would the first song, “Hurricane.”

Hurricane” follows in the tradition of earlier Dylan songs about racial justice, notably 1964’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” This time Dylan tackles the dubious conviction of black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for murder. It isn’t often a song can right the scales of justice, but when Carter was finally released in 1985, I like to think that the attention Dylan had given the case ten years earlier had a positive impact.

More than this, “Hurricane” is an amazing song, with an urgent, angry cadence that packs not just the facts of the case into its eight and half minutes of awesome, but the emotion of the experience as well.

Later on the record, Dylan writes another monster ballad with “Joey” this time about an actual criminal, Joe Gallo, a mafioso who had been shot to death a few years earlier. This time the song is a lot kinder to Gallo’s legacy than his actual biography, but I prefer to take this song as a fictionalized (and fanciful) account of the character, rather than a detailed historic record of the actual man.

Whatever the case, Dylan scorns the paltry 8:34 that it took to tell Rubin Carter’s story, going well over 11 minutes to tell his tale. In place of the frantic pace of “Hurricane” Dylan opts for a mournful dirge, which is just as effective…but longer.

Lyrically, my favourite tune is “Isis” a song about a strange treasure adventure that has Dylan’s wry humour on full display. There are so many great lines in this song, but my favourite verse is:

“The wind it was howlin' and the snow was outrageous
We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn
When he died I was hopin' that it wasn't contagious
But I made up my mind that I had to go on”

Emmylou Harris provides background vocals on six of the record’s nine songs and her high, sweet quaver is a well-suited companion to Dylan’s nasal tone. She makes every song she’s on better. This is never more true than on “One More Cup of Coffee” where her loose harmonies provide the extra haunt to a song set in a desolate western scene where bad things have not happened yet, but their arrival is imminent.

Not everything hits this level of quality. “Black Diamond Bay” is another seven-minute plus behemoth, but on this one I just wanted the song over rather than wondering what was going to happen next. And “Romance in Durango” is yet another in the long line of musicians wanting to throw Spanish themes into their music. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and here it doesn’t. Dylan is a gifted songwriter, but the way he sings here seems affected and pulled me out of whatever romance I was supposed to be feeling.

“Desire” is one of those albums I often pass over when I want to listen to some Dylan, but when I do pick it for a spin, I’m always pleasantly surprised. It was lovely to spend a couple of days with it once again.

Best tracks: Hurricane, Isis, One More Cup of Coffee, Oh Sister, Joey

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