"Some critics would find the album to be lackluster and sentimental, soft in the head. Oh well. Others would triumph it as finally the old him is back. At last. That wasn't saying much either. I took it all as a good sign. To be sure, the album itself had no specific resonance to the shackles and bolts that were strapping the country down, nothing to threaten the status quo. All this was in what the critics would later refer to as my "middle period" and in many camps this record was referred to as a comeback album - and it was. It would be the first of many."
Bob Dylan - Chronicles 2004
In the six years between 1968's "John Wesley Harding" and 1974's "Planet Waves," six Bob Dylan albums were released. Of these six, "New Morning" is almost certainly the best, but that accolade is somewhat diminished when one considers the quality of the other five. One was a greatest hits package (1971), one was the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid" (1973), one was CBS's revenge album (1973), and the other two were "Nashville Skyline" (1969) and "Self Portrait" (1970), enough said. "New Morning" is sometimes seen as the third in a trilogy of country albums, but to include it in this genre with its two predecessors does it a disservice. On the whole, it is a good album (a couple of experimental tracks aside), and its hasty release, a mere four months after "Self Portrait" suggests that Dylan was rethinking his demystification strategy. It is worth remembering however, that nine of the twelve tracks on "New Morning" had been recorded before "Self Portrait" was released. Dylan had met poet Archibald MacLeish early in 1970 (the meeting and subsequent events are wonderfully described in Dylan's superb Chronicles) and he (Dylan) had been invited to write some songs for a play that MacLeish was working on. Dylan who described MacLeish as "...the poet of night stones and the quick earth" submitted three songs, "New Morning," "Time Passes Slowly" and "Father Of Night" and these, according to Al Kooper became the axis of the album. The Dylan/MacLeish collaboration did not work out, and Dylan withdrew from the project or was removed, depending on whose story you believe. MacLeish said that Dylan was "...simply incapable of producing new songs," while Dylan himself claimed that the play was too heavy and that "...I could never make its purpose mine." We should though be grateful for this aborted partnership, as it was largely instrumental in getting Dylan writing again and creating an album that Ed Ward in Rolling Stone began his review of with the words "Well, friends, Bob Dylan is back with us again."
The opening track "If Not For You" sees Dylan back in familiar territory, the country squire living the idyllic country dream. The problem here (as with many of the songs of this period) is one of credibility, it wasn't only that the lifestyle was making Dylan complacent, but also that he was happy to be so! "If not for you/Babe, I'd lie awake all night/Wait for the morning light/To shine through" he sings in a song that is obviously a celebration of that lifestyle, and there is a certain irony in the penultimate line "Anyway it wouldn't ring true." The song had been originally recorded on May 1st at a session where George Harrison was in attendance and that version can be heard on the "Bootlegs vols. 1-3" album. Harrison must have liked the song, he recorded his own version for his 1970 solo album "All Things Must Pass," and Olivia Newton-John had a UK hit (#7) with her version. Dylan re-recorded it at the final "New Morning" session (August 8th) and in a rare moment of clarification some years later admitted "I wrote the song thinking about my wife." Nigel Williamson describes "If Not For You" as "One of Dylan's most infectious love songs," a sentiment that only works if one takes it purely on face value.
From that same August session comes "Day Of The Locusts," surely one of Dylan's strangest songs, it apparently tells of his (reluctant) acceptance of an honorary doctorate from Princeton University. The same ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere is present here that we find in the later "Went To See The Gypsy," but we never know why he is so disinclined to receive this honour. In Chronicles Dylan glosses over the incident, but seems to suggest that he was not worthy of such an accolade. "Oh, the benches were stained/With tears and perspiration" he begins, grabbing our attention straight away, before adding the almost childlike "The birdies were flyin' from tree to tree." He goes on to describe the oppressive heat of the day "The weather was hot, a-nearly ninety degrees" and the pervading menace of the atmosphere "Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb," and throughout all this, the locusts are singing, paradoxically "...a sweet melody." His discomfort is intensified by "The man standing next to me, his head was exploding" (a stoned David Crosby who was along for the ride and to offer moral support). Dylan portrays himself as being totally out of his depth in these surroundings, his own Mr. Jones come back to haunt him, and the end of the ceremony cannot come too quickly, "Sure was glad to get out of there alive" he says, to which Crosby apparently added the epithet "Bunch of dickheads on auto-stroke." Again, one has to wonder why this was such an ordeal, but it does provide some interesting if infuriatingly inaccessible, listening. Thirty four years later (almost to the day) while touring the UK, Dylan was similarly honoured by St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland - history has yet to record how he reacted to that accolade, but if the photographs are anything to go by, he was totally underwhelmed by the whole procedure.
Images of long, lazy summer days are conjured up in "Time Passes Slowly," the third song that was recorded at the final session, and another that had originally been taped in May. "Time passes slowly up here in the mountains/We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains" sings Dylan apparently struggling for a rhyme (mountains and fountains indeed) as with the second verse's good-lookin' and cookin', but again the problem is with believability, the song just does not convince. The undercurrent of dissatisfaction comes in the last verse "Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day/Time passes slowly and fades away," a line that speaks volumes. This song and "If Not For You" replaced "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes" and "Mr. Bojangles" that were originally scheduled to open "New Morning" and changed the album's focus entirely. Those two songs ended up on "Dylan," and ironically were the two strongest tracks on that otherwise forgettable album.
Along with "Day Of The Locusts," "Went To See The Gypsy" is the most intriguing song on the album. Dylan told guitarist Ron Cornelius that it was about a trip to Las Vegas to visit one time idol Elvis Presley, but some of the lyrics are downright baffling. The circumstances of the meeting are typically mysterious, the gypsy was "Stayin' in a big hotel" and his room "...was dark and crowded/Lights were low and dim" and the introductions are guarded "How are you, he said to me/I said it back to him." He goes down to the lobby to "...make a small call out" where he meets the pretty dancing girl who admonishes him to "...go on back to see the gypsy" and take advantage of his various powers which include the very strange, Alice in Wonderland like "Bring you through the mirror" (always a strong image with Dylan). When he does return however, the gypsy has gone and the opportunity has been missed, the dancing girl (who may have only been a figment of his imagination) also disappears and he is left to reflect on what might have been. A very odd little song that leaves us wondering whether the meeting is physical, spiritual, metaphysical or just plain fictional - particularly when one considers the geographical non sequitur of "From that little Minnesota town," or is this just Dylan playing with his audience?
For those of us who thought we would never hear Dylan doing a waltz, there is the wonderful "Winterlude." I say wonderful not to describe the song itself, but rather it's sheer audacity although it is not without merit. Michael Gray refers to it, somewhat disdainfully, as "Dylan on ice" but it is really not that bad, even though "Winterlude, this dude thinks you're fine" is a little bit much. We are in what is by now well established territory, so lines like "Winterlude, let's go down to the chapel/And come back and cook up a meal" should not really surprise, and the imagery of "Come on, sit by the logs in the fire" is revisited in 1974's "On A Night Like This." When we hear Dylan singing "The moonlight reflects on the window/Where the snowflakes they cover the sand" we should concede that when he embraced the country dream he tried to do so wholeheartedly, but one cannot escape the fact that like so many of the songs from this period, "Winterlude" is a prime example of a unique talent going to waste.
Put in its simplest terms, "If Dogs Run Free" is merely a celebration of freedom and the satisfaction that comes with following the dictates of ones own instincts. "Just do your thing, you'll be king" sings (or rather speaks) Dylan to the accompaniment of Al Kooper's piano and Maeretha Stewart's scatting. The trouble with "If Dogs Run Free" is that the lyrics have a tendency towards the banal that might have not been so apparent had a more conventional musical arrangement been employed. "If dogs run free, then what must be/Must be and that is all" isn't exactly Dylan's most tantalising or thought provoking line and "True love can make a blade of grass/Stand up straight and tall" is hardly likely to be discussed late into the night with the aid of various substances, but the song does have a certain innocent charm. "True love needs no company" he says, and "It can cure the soul, it can make it whole," and again one has to wonder just who he is trying to convince. Dylan was pretty dismissive of this song, "...Kooper played some Teddy Wilson riffs on the piano" he says "There were three girl singers in the room who sounded like they'd been plucked from a choir and one of them did some improvisational scat singing. The whole thing was done in just one take and called "If Dogs Run Free""
The title song is probably the strongest and best on the whole album. From the evocative imagery of the opening line "Can't you hear that rooster crowin'?" we are swept along on a tide of joyous exuberance, this is a song that does work. "So happy just to see you smile/Underneath the sky of blue" sings Dylan wearing his heart on his sleeve, and if the rest of the album had shared that same sentiment and commitment we might have had the country album that "Nashville Skyline" could and should have been. The song bounces along with Dylan in great voice (he had a bad cold for most of the sessions, and it can be heard on several of the tracks) and we get lines of such wonderful simplicity as "The night passed away so quickly/It always does when you're with me" and "This must be the day that all of my dreams come true," the country dream indeed.
More could have been done with "Sign On A Window," a song that never really makes it's point. We are given the suggestion of infidelity with "Sign on the porch says, Three's a crowd" and the clumsy "Her and her boyfriend went to California" but it is never really carried through, and then we are back with the familiarity of "Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a girl, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who'll call me pa" and in order that the point is rammed home, the repetition of "That must be what its all about." This recording is from the May 1st session (mentioned above) where George Harrison was reportedly present. Although much was taped on that day, only this and the version of "If Not For You" on the "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3" have been given official release - Dylan also recorded a version of the Beatles' "Yesterday," but that is unlikely to see the light of day officially.
"One More Weekend," is another song that carries with it an air of insincerity. There is a vague sleaziness about the opening line "Slippin' and slidin' like a weasel on the run" that is also evident in "...we can have some fun" and the forced rhyme of "deck" and "suspect" in the second verse does nothing for the song's fluency. The false sentiments of the song are echoed in the hollow "We'll go someplace unknown/Leave all the children home/Honey, why not go alone/Just you and me," emotions that others have verbalised far better than Dylan does here. In the final verse we get the absolutely horrible line "You're the sweetest gone mama that this boy's ever gonna get" and the song grinds to a timely conclusion.
One song that does carry some conviction is "The Man In Me" in which Dylan looks at the relative merits of a give and take relationship while keeping something of himself back. He accepts the importance of the other half of this relationship "Take a woman like you/To get through to the man in me," but he comes dangerously close to mawkishness with "But, oh, what a wonderful feeling/Just to know that you are near" and the line "From my toes up to my ears" is truly dreadful. But on the whole this is one of the better tracks on the album and one that shows that Dylan was returning to some sort of form and there is a delightfully uncharacteristic openness in "The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein' seen/But that's just because he doesn't want to turn into some machine."
Both of the two final tracks are a little experimental and are linked by a sort of pseudo religiosity that is unique to this album. In the first of these, "Three Angels" we return to the spoken word of the earlier "If Dogs Run Free" as Dylan delivers a surreal and rather laboured poem about three rather tacky sounding Christmas decorations. Tackiness may be the point here as these ugly sounding angels with their green robes and "...wings that stick out" gaze down on the passing parade which in turn is oblivious to their existence. Some strange images appear here "The wildest cat from Montana..." "...a truck with no wheels" and "A man with a badge skips by" (my italics) as the angels play their horns and "Nobody stops to ask why." The point comes quite simply at the end "But does anyone hear the music they play/Does anyone even try" and there is more than a hint of parody as these lines are delivered almost with a smirk. The second, "Father Of Night" may not be the worst thing on the entire album, but it is certainly the most simplistic. Robert Shelton calls it a prayer, but in reality it is nothing more than a list (delivered with a simple rhyming structure) of God's gifts to mankind, and the use of such archaic terminology as taketh, teacheth and turneth do little to enhance its artistic merit. The opening couplet of the second verse "Father of day, Father of night/Father of black, Father of white" illustrates the point perfectly, and it is a sad way to end the album because Dylan often uses the final track of an album as a hint or a clue to his next direction, but here we close on a rather flat note. It was this song that was largely responsible for causing the rift between Dylan and MacLeish.
"New Morning" was not the return to form that many people saw it as, but it was a vast improvement on Bob Dylan's two previous studio outings, two albums incidentally that this would always be linked to because of their close chronology. The reviews of "New Morning" were positive and upbeat, but many critics gave the impression that they were praising the album they were hoping for rather than the one they got. "...if there is a major fault on the album, I haven't found it." said Ed Ward in Rolling Stone, before going on to describe it as "...one of the best albums of the year, one of Dylan's best albums, perhaps his best," and giving it four stars. Ed Ochs in Billboard was equally effusive, "We've got Bob Dylan back" he said, adding, "Dylan is dancing, singing to the sun, you can really love him," and Griel Marcus, often Dylan's sternest critic not only called it his best album in years, but went on to describe it as "...an act of vitality." On the other side of the Atlantic, response was more muted and Dylan was seen as a man out of time, his recent Isle of Wight appearance probably added to this perception. That aside, the album reached number seven on the Billboard charts, and the euphoria was compounded by talk of Dylan being so happy with the response to it that he even considered going back on the road, this of course did not happen until four years later. One person who did not share all this enthusiasm was Al Kooper who was responsible for most of the production work but did not get the credit (the album awards him a "Special Thanks") - Bob Johnston was named as producer, but it would be his last album with Dylan. Kooper complained that Dylan was deliberately obstructive and vowed never to work with him again. "New Morning" is a long way from being a classic Dylan album, but it forms a link between his unconvincing country period and the masterful mid to late seventies era where Dylan had no equal both in studio and on stage. The album does have a certain warmth, and it sounds better today than when it was first released.
MacLeish's play was titled "Scratch" and was based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet called "The Devil and Daniel Webster." It eventually opened on Broadway at the St. James theatre on May 6th 1971, and closed two days later. MacLeish died in April 1982, he was eighty nine. Dylan seems to have been in awe of him, in Chronicles he refers to him as, "...a man who had reached the moon when most of us scarcely make it off the ground. In some ways he taught me how to swim the Atlantic. I wanted to thank him but found it difficult." The project seems to be dogged by bad luck, a film version was made in 2001 directed by Alec Baldwin with Anthony Hopkins as Daniel and Jennifer Love Hewitt as the Devil(?) but lack of funds for post production work means that it has not been (and may never be) released.