Saturday, November 27, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1521: Bob Dylan

This is my third music review in less than a week. This is chiefly because I’ve been on my annual US Thanksgiving mini-holiday with more time on my hands. I don’t celebrate US Thanksgiving, but I do appreciate all the football games they put on, so I like to take the Thursday and following Friday off each year and get in some football and a bit of quiet "me" time before the hectic holiday party schedule kicks off.

Disc 1521 is….  Nashville Skyline

Artist: Bob Dylan

Year of Release: 1969

What’s up with the Cover? Bob tips his hat to the audience. This is the happiest picture of Bob Dylan I can recall, and he looks genuinely excited about playing that guitar he’s hefting and singing us a few tunes.

How I Came To Know It: I have been a Dylan fan for a long time, and had this record most of that time, so I can’t remember all the specifics. I believe this was just me drilling through his catalogue back in the day.

How It Stacks Up: I have 19 Bob Dylan albums. He’s done a lot of great ones, and Nashville Skyline had to work hard to elbow its way up the list. I rank it at #13.

Ratings: 4 stars

If you know anything about Bob Dylan you know that Bob does what Bob wants. In 1969 Bob wanted to explore country music. The result is “Nashville Skyline”, a record that is still very much in Bob’s folk wheelhouse, but that features the sights and sounds of American country music as well, as Bob expertly melds the two traditions together.

The most immediate and striking thing about “Nashville Skyline” isn’t the countrified elements, however, it is the quality of Bob’s voice. It is as though for this one record only he’s taken advice from a vocal coach. The nasal quality we associate with Dylan’s singing is significantly toned down, morphing into a slight warble. He clearly wants to capture the country crooner aesthetic and for the most part, he succeeds.

Part of this is the production work of Bob Johnston as well. Dylan albums can be sharp around the edges - purposefully so, but still sharp. On “Nashville Skyline” the album has a much rounder and fuller sound. It reminded me of later efforts like “Oh Mercy” (produced by Daniel Lanois).

This sound is prevalent throughout the record, but never more beautifully executed than on “I Threw It All Away,” a heartbreaking song of regret and lost love. Bob’s vocals on the tune will make you wonder if that is Bob at all, as he falls fully into the emotion of the song. There are none of the clever rhymes or lyrics you might expect from him, just simple heartfelt storytelling. The guitar work is round and gentle with a Spanish flair. The whole thing will make you want to have a good cry, or sing along, or maybe both.

Bob’s exploration draws him to timeless melodic structures. “Girl from the North Country” had me convinced it was some old country traditional that’s been floating around for hundreds of years. But no, while it is inspired by traditional English ballads, it is a Bob original. The tune is sung as a duet with Johnny Cash, as he and Bob were in the throes of a bromance at this time. Bob holds his own with Cash, which is a formidable feat.

My favourite song on the record was also the biggest hit. “Lay Lady Lay” is a five-star masterpiece of a song, and one of the great, “stay the night” songs ever written. Bob has never crooned better than as he invites his lady to “lay across my big brass bed.”  

While the record isn’t perfect (I could live without the pandering rollick of “Peggy Day”) for the most part Dylan plays it straight and delivers songs that sound so timeless you are sure they are covers until you remember that, oh yeah, this is Bob Dylan – he writes classics.

If you currently just listen to Dylan’s greatest hits, you’ll already know “Girl from the North Country” and “Lay Lady Lay,” but if you only listen to Dylans hits you are nevertheless an idiot. He is one of music’s greatest gifts, and while Nashville Skyline isn’t the first record people mention when discussing his brilliance, it is brilliant all the same. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Best tracks: Girl From the North Country, I Threw It All Away, Lay Lady Lay, One More Night

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