Bob Dylan Countdown #169: “If Not For You”

Dylan takes the same approach to a love song here that Brian Wilson took on “God Only Knows”:  He shows the importance of his companion by imagining life without her. While “If Not For You” is far too unassuming to scale the heights of that colossal Beach Boys achievement, its own modest charms can’t be denied.

What grabs me most about this song are the smaller touches embedded in the music. The verses have a nice, lilting feel to them, such as you might expect from a song of love. But in the run-up to the refrain, the chords turn a shade darker. Suddenly, the prospect of a life without this woman seems like an actual possibility and not a hypothetical situation. This subtle maneuver lends the song some much-needed gravity, and it also creates a great tension release when Dylan sings the title again, almost as if he’s letting out a sigh of relief.

Speaking of sighs of relief, Dylan fans probably breathed some big ones after hearing this song kick off New Morning. After the debacle of Self Portrait, Bob appearing in fine form again with this sweet, simple song likely assuaged a lot of doubts.

George Harrison’s version, buffed to a fine sheen by producer Phil Spector, loses some of the subtlety, although George’s underrated interpretive abilities help to get the song over. I’ll take Bob’s version in a split decision, but it’s hard to go wrong with anyone performing a song so good-natured and full-hearted.

 

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