Recommended CDs

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Best Bob Dylan Songs of the Noughties

Sorry about the lack of blog entries in recent months. Having been ill throughout the first half of the year, I've had to work hard to catch up with my contract. I do intend to return to the second part of my albums Dylan should perform in their entirety theme, but, being as it's not only a new year, but a new decade, here's my contribution to the list mountain.

The Best Dylan Songs of the 00's

What a great decade this has been for new Dylan songs! Here is my list of the best 10 of them.

1. Cross the Green Mountain

The movie 'Gods and Generals,' a civil war epic, was mostly panned by the critics, but Dylan lavished on it one of his greatest songs. It opens with a dream-vision -- or is it a nightmare?

I cross the green mountain, I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
And swept through the land of the rich and the free

That third line is terrific -- one thinks of the monsters of classical mythology that come out of the sea to devour their prey, such as the Zeus-sent creature who destroyed Hippolytus or the serpents that emerge from the sea to strangle Laocoon and his sons after the priest of Poseidon strikes the Trojan horse.

But also, as the Canadian poet and writer on Dylan Stephen Scobie suggested to me in an email, post-9/11 "something came up out of the sea" is bound to suggest the death that dropped out of the air on that dark day. It would be typical of Dylan to transfer the threat from the sky to the sea.

The song, appropriately for a civil war epic, incorporates memories of Whitman as well as the "poet laureate of the Confederacy," Henry Timrod, to whom Dylan later nods more than once on Modern Times.

On and on the song rolls, stately, magnificent, and epic (that word again), and you don't want it ever to end.

2. Highwater (for Charley Patton)

The most striking track of an album released on 9/11, it seems horrible prophetic of the events of that day, and the science-hating, religious primitivism that dominated in both America and the Muslim world in the first decade of the 21st century. Even the fate of New Orleans seems, in retrospect, to have been foreshadowed in this dark masterpiece (which nevertheless finds time for a flash of humour: "I got a cravin' love for blazing speed/Got a hopped up Mustang Ford/Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard."

Apart from anything else, it's a great blues-based rocker, one of the highlights of stage performances of this decade, especially with the first Charlie Sexton band.

3. Summer Days

A lot of Dylan fans moaned when this exciting jump blues began the inevitable closer of every Dylan show for the best part of the decade. Well, I for one can't get enough of this joyful song that rages against the dying of the light. "Summer days and summer nights are gone/I know somewhere where something's still going on," Bob sings, determined to still have a ball even though he acknowledges his best days might be behind him.

Everybody get ready - lift up your glasses and sing
Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing
Well, I'm standin' on the table, I'm proposing a toast to the King

Well I'm drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, "You're a worn out star"
My pockets are loaded and I'm spending every dime
How can you say you love someone else when you know it's me all the time?

4. Forgetful Heart

This, by contrast, is one of the most haunting and bleak songs Bob has ever written. It's live debut in Milwaukee on the first of July 2009 was Bob's best performance of the year. Like several of the songs on Together Through Life, it seems slight at first, but leaves a deep impression:

All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forever more
If, indeed, there ever was a door

A delicate, haunting gem of a song that Bob performed several times over the summer and fall, alone, center stage, with just mouth harp.

5. Floater (Too Much To Ask)

An extraordinary portrait of a stuck-in-his-ways misanthrope, a rum old boy living in isolation somewhere in a beautifully evoked deep south. The element of alienation and disenchantment with the present is offset by memories of a deeply cherished childhood:

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had 'em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring dancin' Christmas carols on all of the Christmas Eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves

As well as its element of old-geezerish misanthropy, however, the song has its element of reconcilation between the generations:

The old men 'round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don't carry weight
It doesn't matter in the end

And there is the marvellous touch of humour in evoking the awkwardness of modern adolescent lovers and contrasting them with Shakespeare's classic doomed lovers:

Romeo, he said to Juliet, "You got a poor complexion.
It doesn't give your appearance a very youthful touch!"
Juliet said back to Romeo, "Why don't you just shove off
If it bothers you so much."

This is one of the most extraordinary and original Dylan songs, an extraordinary mixture of highly evocative lyricism and colloquial language, mixed with a smidgen of schoolboy humour. It offers something new on each listen.

6. Po' Boy

An extraordinary song, like so many of those on 'Love and Theft', evocative of the deep south. Here Dylan seems to be singing in the person of a black man ("Boy" is of course racially derogative rather than an indication of age) in the pre-war south, "dodgin' them Georgia laws" evoking the whole world of Jim Crow and its petty obstructions. This song more than any other makes us think of the book by Eric Lott from which Bob took the title of his album: Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, an examination of the whole of blackface minstrelsy in American cultural life. The blackface minstrel, in Lott's interpretation, represents not just cultural appropriation ("theft"), but also homage to "what is stolen ("love"). Rock 'n' roll is itself a manifestation of both these aspects of blackface minstrelsy.

But Dylan's song is even more suffused with schoolboy humour than Floater, with nonsequiturs (I say, "How much you want for that?" I go into the store/Man says, "Three dollars." "All right," I say, "Will you take four?"), an outrageous pun ("Call down to room service, says "Send up a room"), and a knock-knock joke. (Knockin' on the door, I said, "Who's it, where you from?"/Man said, "Freddie." I said, "Freddie who?"/He said, "Freddie or not, here I come!"). And there is another humorous reference to Shakespearean characters.

This "po' boy" has the police on his back, he's washing dishes and feeding swine, he's branded by the claws of time and love, he's "ridin' first class trains" (not legally, one assumes), "tryin' hard not to fall between the cars." The amount of detail in this song, as it is in "Floater," is extraordinary. The cultural vitality, but also the social inequality and racism of the south is evoked. The song is scored for banjo and acoustic guitar, with lounge-style jazz chords, and sung with a soft-shoe charm.

7. Workingman Blues #2

Another extraordinary hotchpotch, this song more than any other on Modern Times evokes the world of Charlie Chaplin's last silent picture.

8. Nettie Mooore

An extraordinary song, with a beautiful, wistful melody and very unusual, off-kilter drumbeat.

9. This Dream of You

For some years now, Bob has been trying to write a classic Tin Pan Alley-type song, and here he finally succeeds. Like several of the songs on Together Through Life, this has an agreeable Tex-Mex flavour.

10. Things Have Changed

The song Bob contributed to the movie "Wonder Boys" and which won him an Academy Award for best movie song. In retrospect, it is the bridge between Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. It shares the formers disillusion and cynicism, but looks forward to the latter's lighter tone. "I used to care, but things have changed," the refrain goes. But thankfully Bob has shown many times this decade, not least on "Love and Theft," which ranks with his great masterpieces, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks, and and Desire.

Honorary mentions; any one of the following could have made the list: Mississippi (but I decided it was really a Time Out of Mind, i.e. nineties song), Lonesome Day Blues, Cry A While, Ain't Talkin', Moonlight, Life Is Hard (just pipped by This Dream of You), Tell Ol' Bill.