By Tony Attwood
Dylan wrote just one song in 1968 –Lay Lady Lay after having averaged around 18 songs of note and importance a year across the rest of the decade. It was by any standard a great song, although it was delivered late – so late in fact that it couldn’t be included in the film that commissioned it. (Mind you the film didn’t seem to suffer).
But such things happen, and Dylan clearly deserved a year out. And we could all hope that Bob would return in 1969 revitalised and ready to deliver a few new masterpieces – another Desolation Row perhaps, a venture into a new form maybe, some more enigmatic pieces of the “Drifter’s Escape” and “All along the Watchtower” variety. Maybe even more Visions.
We certainly did get something new – something that certainly Lay Lady Lay did not prepare us for. What we got was a further exploration of rural music – this time with a country flavour. But it was an album that didn’t have any of the enigma of John Wesley Harding. There was no re-writing of history, no chance of arguing over references and meaning. It’s a “life is nice” album.
What Dylan had done with JWH was give us tales from the old days but with a depth of mystery that can still provoke arguments. But here Dylan stripped out the enigma, and instead took as his starting point “I’ll be your baby tonight” but then perhaps thought that was a bit too complex and simplified it further.
There is of course on the album the duet with Johnny Cash, which is of importance in music history, and certainly adds an extra level to “Girl from the North Country,” but as an opening statement on an album from a man known for always giving us something new, this was something old. An interesting something old, but not what Dylan was known for.
“Nashville Skyline Rag” isn’t what Dylan is known for either. True it allows the album’s musicians to have a bit of fun, but does it add anything or make us think or give us something new? No. That doesn’t make it a poor song, because there is nothing in the rule book that says that Dylan has to give us something new each time – it is just a bit of a surprise that the man who has made his name out of taking the blues, pop and rock in new directions chooses to visit an old direction.
Dylan wrote the songs for the album, and little else at this time. Some love songs, a bit of lost love and some trivia – here they are
- I threw it all away
- To be alone with you
- One more night
- Peggy Day
- Country Pie
- Tell me it isn’t true
- Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
- Living the blues
There are some classic Dylan moments in the year’s compositions – and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is a lovely song, but it seems a bit of a let down, in that across two years all we get are nine songs and an instrumental.
Maybe the conclusion is that Dylan was too content. Maybe he needs to be hurting, full of despair and disdain, deep in dismay to write great songs. Maybe as others have said, his musical style and approach are just not suited to the total fulfilment of happy family life in the rural countryside. But if (again as others have said) Dylan had given us an album of mysticism amidst the olden days, and albums of hurt and pain, so now he wanted to offer an album about being happy then ok he did that. It just doesn’t seem to work for me (and honestly I am not endlessly miserable).
Dylan seemed very happy with his modest output across the last two years of the decade – an output that had nothing to do with what was happening in the country at large, and nothing to do with breaking new ground. But then, there is nothing in the rule book that says that every album has to reach out to new territory.
But if it is a case of judging the music by having the luxury of historical perspective, then much of the music of these two years must be seen as a failure. Every minute of every day I am certain there are many people who are playing tracks from the previous Dylan albums, or just singing the songs to themselves, or quoting them. But how much of these two year’s output is still played, and still quoted? I suspect not much.
However, maybe that’s just me. Maybe I just want every year to be 1965.
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The Chronology Files
These files put Dylan’s work in the order written. You can link to the files here
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century