"Singers in the fifties and sixties were just one step removed from the early ones, and you could hear that. But you can't hear it anymore, it's so polluted and unclean...Even World Gone Wrong is a step or two removed. People should go to those old records and find out what the real thing is, because mine is still second generation."
Bob Dylan 1993
1980's "Saved" aside, "World Gone Wrong" is the closest that Bob Dylan has ever come to producing a follow-up album. Released in late October 1993, this album like its predecessor "Good As I Been To You" was recorded in his home studio, prior to his summer tour of Europe in June and July of that year. Also like its predecessor it received critical acclaim but little commercial success, Rolling Stone called it "...a fitting follow-up to last year's "Good As I Been To You" and another remarkably strong showing." This time around, Dylan appeared to have taken more care with both sound and content even though the whole thing took only a few days to record. Only four tracks from those sessions were discarded, the remaining ten which leaned more heavily on blues than folk making up the album. Dylan himself took the unusual step of writing the liner notes and describing the songs and their sources in detail (though often in a perplexingly complex manner) perhaps as a response to the criticism he had received for the lack of recognition he gave to his sources on the previous album. However, any suggestion that these songs held a special significance for him was negated by the fact that other than debuting four of them during his four concerts at Manhattan's Supper Club on November 16th and 17th 1993, they form no part of his live repertoire (with the exception of "Two Soldiers" which he had been performing live since June 1998). That aside, "World Gone Wrong" Dylan's second acoustic album of the nineties earned him a well deserved Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
The title track is one of two Mississippi Sheiks songs that Dylan performs here, although he changes the title from "The World Is Going Wrong." This downbeat number sets the tone for the album, which Andy Gill of the Independent said was "...steeped in deceit, treachery, veniality and despair" and perhaps Dylan was being ironic when he said that this song, which takes the easy option when laying blame, "...goes against cultural policy." "Feel bad this morning, ain't got no home/No use in worrying, 'cause the world's gone wrong" is very much in keeping with the theme of the whole album. Dylan is at his most ruminative on this track, lacking some of the angst found on later songs, and when he sings "If you have a woman and she don't treat you kind/Praise the good Lord to get her out of your mind" he sounds almost philosophical.
"Love Henry" and Dylan's vocal on it is one of the finest tracks on the album. The themes of deceit and duplicity continue in this ballad that has its roots in Scottish folk-lore. "I have gold chains and the finest I have/I'll apply them all to thee" offers Henry's lover in a futile attempt to buy his affection. On learning of his infidelity, "She murdered mortal he" with a "...penny knife" and the description of the disposal of the body in the middle section of the song is as despairing as it is desperate "Lie there, lie there, Love Henry she cried/Til the flesh rots off your bones/Some pretty little girl in Cornersville/Will mourn for your return" is her version of the classic lover's dog in the manger attitude. The final two verses are steeped in pathos as the veiled threat to the parrot who presumably witnessed the whole sorry affair becomes evident "A girl who would murder her own true love/Would kill a little bird like me." A great performance this by Dylan of a sad and ultimately depressing song.
"Ragged And Dirty" places us in another classic scenario, that of wanting the one thing that is unobtainable to us. Whether the title refers to physical or emotional deprivation is a moot point but the sentiment behind "If I clean up, sweet momma, can I stay all night with you?" is quite clear, as is the desperation behind "If I can't come in here, baby, then just let me sit down in your door." In his liner notes (although not much attention should be paid to them) Dylan refers to "...taking stupid chances" probably alluding to "...I would leave so soon your man won't never know" which leads to the ultimate threat of the scorned lover "Well, I been mistreated and I swear I don't mind dyin'."
The lustful theme of "Blood In My Eyes" sees Dylan deliver another great vocal. This is the second of the Mississippi Sheiks songs, and again referring to the liner notes, Dylan says that "...all their songs are raw and to the bone" and there is no argument with that here. "I got blood in my eyes for you , babe/I don't care what in the world you do" is the opening gambit of the ardent suitor, before he returns home for money and perversely, to put on a tie. When the lady in question has second thoughts about this assignation, a hint of menace is introduced into the proceedings "I tell you something, tell you the facts/You don't want me, give me my money back" which is in keeping with the cheerless and melancholy feel of the whole album. The video for this song was shot in Camden, a rundown part of London, which added to the down-at-heel feel of the song.
Blind Willie McTell's "Broke Down Engine" brings a change of pace, as Dylan ups the tempo. "...it's about trains" he says on the liner notes, which it patently is not, "Been shooting craps and gambling, momma, and I done gone broke" he confesses, with a heavy irony on the word broke. The hero (or anti-hero) of the song is really in trouble, having lost his money, his pistol and even his "...best clothes" he has only one course open to him, but his prayers are not for religion, "...Lord, give me back my good gal please." Typically with these pleas of desperation, it will be the last one "If you give me back my baby, I won't worry you no more" he is even prepared to make things easier for the Almighty "Don't have to put her in my house, Lordy, just lead her to my door" because there is only one person who can put things right, this woman who "...can really do the Georgia Crawl" and who can "...come take away Daddy's weeping spell."
Dylan had obviously known the song "Delia" for some time before this recording of it, there is a version of it on the 1960 St. Paul Minnesota tape, and it received a surprise airing on the second night of Dylan's seven night stint at the Pantages Theatre Hollywood in May of 1992. Here he refers to it as "...two or more versions mixed into one." and uses the delightful phrase "...counterfeit loyalty" that could describe just about any song on this collection. A sad tale made more so by the poignancy of the chorus line "All the friends I ever had are gone." Like most of the women here, Delia is a girl of dubious morals, and meets her end as a result of this "He shot poor Delia down with a cruel forty-four" and because of her infidelity "You loved all them rounders, never did love me." Dylan points out that Curtis shows no remorse for the murder, he "...makes no apology & is doomed to obscurity" for his crime. Another sad and slightly pathetic tale that effectively ends two lives "Curtis in the jailhouse, drinking from an old tin cup/Delia's in the graveyard, she ain't gettin' up."
A shift of tempo again with "Stack a Lee" a song that Dylan devotes more space to than any other on the liner notes. Another death, this time over the theft of a hat, a John B. Stetson, and another miscreant who gets his comeuppance. Dylan shows his humour, if not his knowledge of the English language, in his description "...the song says that a man's hat is his crown. futurologists(?) would insist it's a matter of taste." Billy Lyons, thief of the hat in question, pleads for mercy "Stack A Lee, oh Stack A Lee, please don't take my life" but his pleas fall on deaf ears "Stack A Lee turned to Billy Lyons and he shot him right through the head/Only taking one shot to kill Billy Lyons dead/All about that John B. Stetson hat." Stack A Lee, an acknowledged "...bad man" receives his punishment, but has to contend with the ghost of his victim "Stack A Lee turned to the jailer, he said/Jailer, I can't sleep/'Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep."
The focus of the album shifts with the last three tracks, we are still surrounded by death, but there is a nobility about the mortality of these three songs that is absent from the others where death is the theme. The first, "Two soldiers" takes us to the American Civil War and a song that Dylan tells us that he learned from the late Jerry Garcia. Sometimes known as "The Battle Of Fredericksburg" the song centres on the carnage of that battle that took place in December 1862. The "...blue-eyed Boston boy" strikes a bargain with an equally doomed comrade to carry news of their fates to their respective families. Neither survives the terrible battle "...among the dead that were left on the hill/Was the boy with the curly hair/The tall dark man who rode by his side/Lay dead beside him there" in this sparse and moving ballad. Even though this is not the easiest track to hear the vocal on, ironically it is one of the best, and Dylan performs it with a passion and tenderness that is lacking on much of the album.
The theme of "Jack-A-Roe" is not a new one to Dylan, he had been performing "Female Rambling Sailor" since his 1992 tour of Australia, and his previous album's "Canadee-i-o" also has a cross-dressing heroine at its heart. Here the girl defies her father who threatens to "...confine" her if she does not abandon her love for a sailor, "This body you may imprison, my heart you can't confine/There's none but Jack the sailor would have this heart of mine" she tells him. Masquerading as Jack-A-Roe and "...dressed in men's array" she fools her comrades into thinking that she is a man, even though "Your waist is light and slender, your fingers neat and small/Your cheeks too red and rosy for to face a cannonball." She vows to fight as well as any man, and her slender waist and small fingers "...would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall" and as the war ends, she finds her beau among the dead and dying. We are not certain whether he is just among them or one of them, although the hasty nuptials do suggest a deathbed marriage. This is another fine vocal performance, or it would be if the echo had been left off.
The final track "Lone Pilgrim" is another heartfelt performance in which Dylan sounds a lot younger than on the rest of the album. What attracts him to the song, he says in the liner notes "...is how the lunacy of trying to fool the self is set aside" a sentiment that has always been close to his heart. A beautiful, peaceful little song that has a hymn like quality to it, "...calm is my feeling, at rest is my soul/The tears are all wiped from my eyes" the resting pilgrim tells the narrator, he is untroubled by howling tempests, roaring thunder or gathering storms. He relates how he left his family and followed his master until a "...contagion" caused his soul to fly "...to mansions on high" and he instructs the listener to inform his family that they should not mourn him, because "The same hand that led me through seas most severe/Has kindly assisted me home." A wonderfully serene and placid note on which to end the album.
As with its predecessor, "World Gone Wrong" garnered much critical acclaim, but little commercial success, a pity because it is a fine album and of the two, marginally better. Rolling Stone referred to Dylan as a "...genius blues singer" and Ira Robbins, writing in Newsday said that it expressed "...as much about Bob Dylan's art as any collection of originals." It was released on October 26th, a couple of weeks after Dylan came off his North American fall tour with Santana, a tour that would not have been a suitable showcase for his newly recorded material, although "You're Gonna Quit Me" and "Blackjack Davy" (along with occasional outings of "Hard Times" and "Jim Jones") from "Good As I Been To You" were performed. In November, Dylan appeared on Late Night With David Letterman but again chose to ignore both of these albums, performing 1974's "Forever Young" instead. Indeed, material from these two albums is rarely, if ever played live. "Tomorrow Night" from "Good As I Been To You" was given a couple of outings on the Far East tour of 1994, and the Tim Hardin song "The Lady Came From Baltimore" an out-take from the same album was performed a few times in the US and Europe the same year, but "World Gone Wrong" is virtually totally overlooked. But Dylan defended the validity of these albums, "My influences have not changed" he said in 1997 "That's why I recorded two LPs of old songs, so I could personally get back to the music that's true for me." and it would be in that year, after a four year gap that we would finally see an album of new Bob Dylan material.