13 September 2008

mining for dylan

a few weeks ago, my brother, benjamin, emailed daniel & i to ask for some advice. he was planning to attend a dylan concert in philadelphia & wanted some recommendations of solid contemporary dylan music. i thought that daniel's response was worthy of a posting, so here goes....


Now I'm no Dylan expert, but I'll take any opportunity to pretend I am. I'll start of with a little imagery. When Amanda and I were in Alaska we stayed in an area that only ever had people living in it because many years ago they were swept there with the gold rush. There was once a time when fortunes of gold could be found in the area. But since that time, the gold has dwindled and the remaining gold miners and prospectors survive by sifting through the old tailings of yesteryear. (This is true. People will actually scratch out a living sifting through pre-sifted dirt in the frozen barrens of northern Alaska).

Now with that imagery in mind, I'll share my thoughts on later-era Bob Dylan. Which is to say that nuggets of gold, real gold, can be found in his later work. But by no means do they compare to the wealth found in his earlier material. His early material was lying there glistening on the river's edge waiting to be scooped up. In my opinion, the gold rush ended right after 1975's "Blood on the Tracks". From the late seventies on out, Dylan has been consistently churning out material. The vast majority of which is akin to frozen sand and gravel. Once you've waded into these waters, especially the sludge of the eighties, you've got to do some serious sifting. But the hard work of sifting is what makes discovering later-era gems so enjoyable.

Now I've done a bit of sifting myself, and the two places that I've found the most rewarding paydirt, were in 1989's "Oh Mercy" and in 1993's "World Gone Wrong". "Oh Mercy" is interesting because on this album Dylan gets away from the big band blues which was overpowering a lot of his recent work, and went with a much simpler and more slickly produced album. It was produced by Daniel Lanoise, the man behind U2's "the Joshua Tree". I would recommend "most of the time" and "ring them bells" as tracks that really stuck out. In "World Gone Wrong", Dylan returns to the stripped down rootsy blues feel that dominates his earlier albums. Although this album does not contain any original songs and gets little recognition, it's probably my favorite of his later work.

Critics have stated that Dylan's last three albums, "Time out of Mind", "Love and Theft", and "Modern Times" comprise a sort of trilogy of material that compares to his older material. It's true that these three albums are much better than most of what has been put out since the 70's. But that's no reason to believe these guys. They're just old Dylan miners with a case of Dylan blindness who are so used to being waste deep in sludge that they mistake a thin mud for clear water. That being said, this is probably the stuff that Dylan would be likely to play in concert. A couple of tracks that I've enjoyed have been "Sugar Baby" off "Love and Theft" and "Nettie Moore" off "Modern Times".

I hope you have fun at the concert. Don't let the actual wrinkled skin and croaking voice distract you from the enchanting suggestions of beautiful golden beaches. I think this is the level that Dylan has to be appreciated at today.

2 comments:

James Moes said...

I appreciate this reflection on Dylan.

Earlier this year, I was on a Dylan kick (well, maybe more of a pass) and I enjoyed the Bob Dylan Podcast you can subscribe to for free on iTunes. It's worth listening to, even if the episodes are much too short.

Chris and Christina said...

good insights on the whole dan. i'd have to disagree in a few minor areas ("desire" and the live album "hard rain" are definitely two of his best and were released post-"blood on the tracks").

when it comes to his later stuff, though, it's all about production for me. the critics went gaga over "infidels", but i think that was just because they were so happy to see him doing something that wasn't overtly religious.

i'd have to agree with the majority and say that he didn't really get back into things until "time out of mind", and it's not necessarily that the songs were all that much better than "oh mercy", but that the production value was of a much more timeless nature.