I’m reminded today of an hilarious moment in Tim Moore’s rather excellent book French Revolutions, about his attempt, as a fairly rickety and unfit man, to complete the route of the Tour de France on a fairly rickety bicycle.
When you’re cycling, you’re moving at the kind of speed that means you notice all the shit – sometimes literally – people throw out of their cars. The kind of things David Sedaris obsessively picks up down in West Sussex. There’s a bit in French Revolutions when Moore notices a series of discarded and unspooled Johnny Halliday tapes in a lay-by. As he labours along on his rickety bike, he imagines the conversation that led to their being thrown out of the window.
‘Gérard, we love Johnny Halliday, right?’
‘Everyone loves Johnny. Go, Johnny!’
‘Yeah, Go! But I was thinking – why is that?’
‘Well, because he’s a global pop-rock legend who just happens to be French, that’s why.’
‘Even though no one else in the world has heard of him.’
‘And even though he looks like a chain-smoking old tramp in mascara.’
‘Yeah. But you know: go, Johnny!’
‘Right. I mean, I really love Johnny too, but the thing is, all of his music is just so utterly, utterly abysmal, that I was wondering if we could carry on doing the whole love bit while at the same time throwing all his tapes out of the window.’
‘Fair enough. We’ll do it when we stop to crap in the next lay-by.’Tim Moore, French Revolutions, page 87
So. A lot of chin stroking over the past few months, ever since the unexpected release by Bob Dylan of “Murder Most Foul” on March 27. A chin stroking event in this most chin-strokingest of years, 2020. A lot of people who have been paying a lot more attention than me seemed to think MMF must have been sitting in the vaults. “It sounds like it might have been recorded at around the same time as Tempest,” said more than one.
I think they were all wrong.
Like many men of my age, I’ve loved Bob Dylan since I was a teenager, but I confess I’ve not been a very good fan in the past 30 years. I know that he is beloved of women too, but I don’t think the split is 50/50. I could be wrong.
The last album of his I bought and enjoyed was Oh Mercy, in 1989, when I was just 26 years old. After that I felt successively disappointed and then cheated by Under the Red Sky, Good as I Been to You, and World Gone Wrong. For context, I’d been buying each new Dylan record on the day of release throughout the 80s, and I’d already been burned by Real Live, Down in the Groove and Dylan and the Dead, none of which I’d liked. Even Knocked Out Loaded, while it had the fantastic Brownsville Girl, didn’t have anything else to recommend it.
By the, ahem, time Time Out of Mind was released in 1997, I was out, and I’ve stayed out really, ever since.
A friend tried to interest me in Love and Theft (2001) but, as they say, it didn’t take. I was very much a Bob Dylan fan in the mode of: I love Bob Dylan – go, Bob! But I’ve hated everything he’s released since 1990. My cassettes were figuratively unspooled in the lay-by.
What was my problem?
It was one thing mainly. The voice. The cracked and broken instrument that had been in the past beautiful and powerful and expressive and dangerous. Through every phase of his career, from folk through rock to country and then gospel and back to rock again, his voice had been wonderful. And then Oh Mercy came out, and while I liked it, the voice was gone. Too much touring, too many nodules, not enough cold water, too many cigarettes, bad technique. What? And while his voice had been constantly shifting and changing between 1962 and 1989, after that it seemed to get stuck, lost, forever broken.
And along with the voice went, as far as I could tell, the melodies, the tunes, and what came in often seemed like the most basic, chugging rock and blues, the kind of stuff I’ve never liked, from “Maggie’s Farm” onward.
But here we are in lockdown, and the Twitter bubble I seem to have ended up in is pretty much pro-Dylan and very enthused about the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways. So I was inclined to check it out.
Two further pre-releases followed “Murder Most Foul”: “I Contain Multitudes” and “False Prophet”. The former sounded very much like a continuation of MMF, with the same meter to the lines, the same non-melody, and a very similar backing track. “False Prophet”, on the other hand was very much in the vein of the chugging blues I’ve disdained for 25 years.
I liked “Murder Most Foul”; it intrigued and moved. One of the chapters of my PhD was about Don Delillo’s Libra, and I did a lot of reading about the Kennedy assassination and Dallas in 1963, Jack Ruby and his dancers. So MMF really spoke to me. The similar-sounding “I Contain Multitudes” was all right, a bit too much the same, but I really wasn’t sure the rest of the forthcoming album would speak to me.
His voice is still shot. Some say it has improved following his American Songbook cover albums, but we’re grading on a curve here.
The album came out yesterday, and I’ve given it a couple of listens. As David Hepworth said on Twitter, nobody knows if a Dylan album is any good until it has been out at least a year. He’s got form when it comes to releasing things that people take decades coming to terms with. With an artist of his stature, you don’t just walk in and insta-fave. On the other hand, an awful lot of men (it is mostly men) of a certain age on Twitter and in the YouTube comments seem to be praising Rough and Rowdy Ways to the skies.
Of the seven new songs I hadn’t heard before, I really like four of them, and of the other three I only really didn’t like one. To be fair, this is a pretty good hit rate, because I’m an inveterate track skipper. Back in the day when I did play vinyl and CDs, I would be leaping to lift the needle over songs even on records like Blood on the Tracks. I’ve rarely liked a whole album by anybody.
Anyway, we’ll see, won’t we, if we all still like it in a year or so. I’ve got a couple of observations about what I’ve heard so far. The first is that the 9-minute “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is probably my favourite and it sounds uncannily like “Most of the Time” from Oh Mercy. Which is not a bad thing because I really like that track too.
The second is that “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” has a title like an old Sinatra song, and really could have been written for Sinatra to sing. Dylan delivers it with an approximation of a cracked croon, and you could hear the latter-day Sinatra, the one who used to lean in to his own failing voice, doing it justice.